Written by Barbara Durr, Asheville Watchdog.
The town of Woodfin is scoring some success in its effort to regulate short-term rentals, which have proliferated in Buncombe County in recent years.
Woodfin has begun to enforce the ordinance it passed last year to tighten restrictions on the rentals, using the data firm Granicus to identify STRs, defined as whole home rentals, and homestays, where a resident rents out a portion of their home. All the identified rentals that were not in compliance with the new rules were recently sent violation notices and potentially face a $100 fine for every day the property remains in violation.
Town Manager Shannon Tuch considers the town’s efforts “a moderate success,” saying a key reason is “we have much better records now. We have a much better sense of how many units are in town and how many are conforming.”
The town wants to keep housing for community residents, whether long-term renters or homeowners. Woodfin has approximately 4,000 total housing units, with STRs comprising about 5% of the total.
“It’s really to try to keep investors from coming in and just sort of scooping up all the available housing,” Tuch said of the ordinance.
“Like a lot of communities, housing is such a huge need in our area, and before when there was no regulation, it (STR proliferation) was just running rampant,” she said. “We just can’t afford to lose any housing.”
Woodfin’s ordinance forbids STRs in residential areas, but allows those who already owned and operated them in those areas to continue to do so. All whole home rentals are now required to have a town permit. New STR owners will be allowed only one permit, limiting investors from buying multiple properties for STR use.
Under the ordinance, STRs also are required to be three bedrooms or fewer, and have off-street parking and proof of insurance.
Special events are also prohibited in them.
Jim McAllister, a member of the town council and a candidate for Woodfin mayor this year, said in an email to Asheville Watchdog that he believes that the STR ordinance “we passed is supported by Woodfin residents.”
McAllister noted that the town has not had any lawsuits against the new rules and has had “across-the-board citizen cooperation.”
Woodfin’s preliminary tally of STRs
By July, Tuch was able to present to the council the preliminary count of Woodfin STRs: 214 whole home rentals and nine homestays. Of the 214 whole home rentals, 108 were compliant with the new rules, 70 were non-compliant, and it was unclear whether the remaining 36 were compliant.
Tuch provided a recent update to The Watchdog. Ten of the 70 non-compliant whole home rentals have applied for homestay permits, 13 produced old permits, which were then grandfathered in as compliant, and another four were found in zoning districts that allowed STRs and they applied for permits.
Another five or six are considering their options, including converting to long-term rentals.
“A lot of those folks will probably switch to long-term rentals,” Tuch said, adding that the town would “give them a bit of time to figure out what might work best for them.”
Conversions to long-term rentals are “some wins for residential housing,” McAllister said.
Tuch said the remaining non-compliant STR owners have yet to contact the town. In some cases, that may mean the notice of violation did not reach the responsible party. But if the town can confirm that the owners received the initial notice and haven’t responded, the town will issue a citation and begin the assessment of fines, she said.
One STR owner, Alice Silver, told The Watchdog that she had tried to get a permit for three years, ever since she put her basement apartment on AirBnB. AirBnB told her at the time if her town had permits that she needed to get one.
She went to town hall to ask for one, she said.
“The town said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’” Silver said. Concerned about proper permitting, she went a second time, she said, and was told, “It’s on the website.” But she was not able to find the correct permit forms. After she got the recent notice of violation, “I went to town to do it,” she said.
She got her permit July 28.
Silver, a retired teacher, said she’s had renters for as long as 10 months, but usually for shorter periods. She is less interested in renting long-term because she likes to have the apartment available when her daughters visit.
Tuch noted that the STR number “is dynamic” because “some units get reclassified, others go away and new ones come on.”
The town is working to confirm the Granicus data with its own staff. It is also trying to discover the status of the 36 “not yet determined,” which means they do not have an address yet for those rentals.
The efforts of the town council to more effectively regulate STRs started last November when it voted 5-1 to tighten restrictions using zoning rules — one of the few avenues open to towns and cities for STR regulation, given the limitations imposed on regulating STRs by the North Carolina legislature.
Under North Carolina law, municipalities cannot require short-term rental properties to be registered or licensed, though using zoning for permitting is allowed. The legislature, which justifies its stance as protection of private property owners to do what they wish with their properties, is also considering further limits on STR regulation.
The only town council member to vote against the ordinance was Ronnie Lunsford, one of the last remaining members of the old guard in Woodfin’s government. Lunsford told The Watchdog, “If you want to rent out, you should be allowed,” because “some people make their living off those STRs.” He opposed the zoning limits.
He acknowledged that Woodfin had had “a couple of bad neighborhoods” with STRs. “If the cops get called three times a week, we’ve got a problem.” But just because of some problems, “you don’t penalize everybody,” he said.
The council shifted politically in the 2021 election, with new members intent on limiting development, protecting the environment, and fostering more transparency and participation in local government.
McAllister said, “The Council believes that the voters gave its members clear marching orders to ‘clean up Town Hall,’ get the AirBnB situation under control, and stop the crazy developments like the Bluffs.” The Bluffs development on the west side of the French Broad River was vehemently opposed by local residents.
McAllister and his allies at the town council have initiated more change in addition to enforcing the STR rules. On August 15, the council passed a ban on single use plastic bags and got a developer of a 300-unit housing project to set aside 10 percent of the units in perpetuity for affordable housing.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Barbara Durr is a former correspondent for The Financial Times of London. Contact her at [email protected]. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.