Neighbors for Short Term Rental Reform’s Response to STR Industry Editorial in the Austin American Statesman

Below is an opinion piece drafted and submitted to the Austin American Statesman in response to a 650-word opinion piece published on October 13, 2015 claiming neighbors opposed to short term rentals were misinformed. The Statesman “passed” on this in-kind response and instead asked for a 200 word Letter to the Editor.

The short-term rental (STR) industry claims that neighborhood concerns about STRs are misinformed, but it is Mr. Gilcrease’s October 13, 2015 opinion piece that is filled with misinformation.

First, the “audit” he cites purportedly showing STRs have lower incidents of code violations uses data from 2011, before the current STR ordinance was even in place. Austin’s STR landscape has changed significantly in the 4 years since that data was collected.

Second, the claim that there are only 12 problem STR property owners is based on a report from the Austin Rental Alliance (an STR advocacy organization) that skews an unreliable data set collected from Code Enforcement. Some issues with this data include:

  1. Code’s database isn’t synced with other government databases like the Police Department (p. 11 of linked report), meaning that calls made or transferred to APD/9-1-1 are not included. This would include any afterhours noise complaint handled by APD.
  2. The City’s 3-1-1 system did not have an STR category until recently (~July 3rd, 2015) so prior to then there was no systematic process for linking complaints to STRs.
  3. Anecdotally, some neighbors are afraid to call, while others stop calling because nothing is ever done. We know there are thousands of illegal operators and (at least 12) disruptive STRs and yet, up through July of this year, Code had only issued one STR related fine.

We have called Code more than 5 times regarding the STR property next to us. That property is neither listed among ARA’s “12 bad actors,” nor is there any record of a complaint to that address in the data set it used.

In addition to the unreliability of the data, the way it is presented is problematic. Using 5 complaints as the threshold to be considered a ‘bad actor’ is completely arbitrary. Furthermore, though Gilcrease claims it’s “comprehensive,” the data used is not normalized. That is, it does not compare the total number of STR-related complaints to the total number of complaints made on all residential properties. As such, from this data it cannot be determined whether STRs are a greater nuisance than other properties.

Third, Gilcrease cites a “study” to support his claim that STRs do not impact school enrollment. The “study” is just a 2013 impact statement from AISD – there is no actual study, no data, and no methodology. In addition, the statement specifically notes that it is only looking at whether a 3% cap on just Type 3 STRs (not all STRs) would impact enrollment. There is currently only a 25% cap on Type 3 STRs in commercial areas, so the statement doesn’t reflect existing conditions. More importantly, saying a 3% cap on Type 3s wouldn’t impact schools does not mean STRs have no impact on them.

Gilcrease provides no link to the City of Austin’s “study” on the impact of short term rentals on affordability.

With respect to alleged compliance rates of licensed STRs, there is no explanation as to what “compliance” means or how it is determined. Furthermore, there are over 5,000 STR listings in Austin on Airbnb alone. Since the vast majority of STRs are unlicensed, there actually appears to be a very high rate of non-compliance. We could go on, but we’re approaching the word limit.

STR proponents have misinformed the public before. In June 2015, the ARA claimed that STRs bring in over $15M in Hotel Occupancy Tax Revenue. Data from the City Controller confirmed the actual number to be around just $2.3M. Gilcrease’s “statistics” are just more of the same. There are clearly two sides to this issue, and vigorous debate is important, but misleading the public with bad “facts” doesn’t further that debate, it only cheapens it.

Jessica Neufeld & Ryan Suneson
Neighbors for Short Term Rental Reforms