The City of San Antonio is crafting a new ordinance to address short term rentals (STRs) like Airbnb, HomeAway and FlipKey.  The issues raised by STRs are not new to KWA.  Today, opponents of STRs are concerned about neighborhood safety and stability.  Proponents of STRs cite property rights and economics.  These are the same topics that arose in the 1990s when the City struggled to address those who wanted no B&Bs in neighborhoods and those who wanted no regulation of B&Bs.

Under the original B&B ordinance of 1989, a B&B could be operated in a residential zoning district if an owner-operator obtained a special use permit from City Council.  Enforcement of the owner-occupier requirement, however, was virtually nonexistent, relying on neighborhood reporting. 

A dispute arose in 1990 between the KWA and the owner of a B&B who was violating the owner-occupier requirement.  By 1992, the high number of B&Bs without resident owners prompted KWA’s president, Ed Day, to write the Zoning Commission to request enforcement.  KWA’s concerns about B&Bs went public in 1993 when Rick and Kristen Casey opposed the special use application for a B&B in the 300 block of Adams. 

City Council denied the permit, but told KWA to find a compromise between those who opposed B&Bs on the basis of neighborhood character and those who favored B&Bs on the basis of economics and property rights.  While B&Bs existed throughout the City, KW was — as it is now — the neighborhood most heavily impacted by tourism.  At that time, there were several suspected non-authorized B&Bs in King William and 23 authorized B&Bs, with four appearing on one block. 

To explore the B&B issues, KWA created a balanced ad hoc committee, including neighbors in favor of B&B expansion, those in favor of the status quo, and several specialists from outside King William: Lowell Denton (urban planning), Ann McGlone (historic preservation), Tess Giolima (neighborhood dynamics), Bob Ashcroft (property law), and Anna Cervantes (economics/real estate value). 

The committee held over 60 public meetings over the next few years which were well attended.  Topics included noise, trash, signage, on-street parking, property values and security issues springing from the inability to recognize guests from intruders.  In July 1996, KWA’s committee forwarded its report to the Zoning Commission with suggested amendments to the B&B ordinance. 

The proposed changes were hotly debated at a public hearing before the Zoning Commission in November 1997.  The Commission referred the amendments to its own subcommittee which met throughout 1998 with various stakeholders appointed by City Council to represent each district (myself included).  This subcommittee developed additional recommendations, which the Zoning Commission adopted on March 16, 1999, following a public hearing. 

In April 1999, City Council considered the Zoning Commission’s recommendations at another emotionally charged meeting.  Council postponed the item for 30 days to allow the Planning Department to host another public meeting.  On May 6, 1999, after nine years of KWA involvement, City Council approved amendments to the B&B ordinance. 

Significantly, the amended ordinance grandfathered the prior nonconforming uses.  And while the ordinance abandoned the need for a special use permit to operate a B&B in a residential district, the ordinance included two key features to protect neighborhoods: density restrictions and owner occupancy.  Food service was not even addressed; by that time, many B&Bs had stopped serving a traditional breakfast.  Instead, a B&B was broadly defined as any “establishment which supplies temporary accommodations to overnight guests for a fee.” 

Under this definition, STRs are not legal unless they satisfy the B&B ordinance, yet many do not.  As with B&Bs, STRs have proliferated because enforcement is nonexistent and pits neighbor against neighbor. 

In the 1990s, B&Bs were represented by local trade associations.  Now, STRs are represented by national corporations lobbying in their favor at all levels of government.  Many of the economic drivers from the 1990s are still in play: the need for property owners to pay their bills and the City’s need to promote tourism.  Many of the social issues surrounding security, property values and destabilization of the neighborhood are likewise still in play.

For example, if there is noise or trouble in a STR where the owner is absent, how do we know who is responsible or who we can turn to for help?  Will the proliferation of STRs adversely impact property values?  Will absentee landlords help residents with the hard work of keeping KW a great place to live?  Will a property manager treat the neighborhood the same way as a neighbor?  All questions previously asked and answered.

The City’s proposed STR ordinance defines a short term rental as “all or a portion of a one-family or two-family house,” and it allows homes to be converted into businesses without full-time occupants, much less owner-occupants.  There are no density restrictions.  The proposed ordinance effectively guts the B&B ordinance.  If history repeats itself, then the residential fabric of the neighborhood will be threatened by the lack of owner-occupiers and by the transformation of single family dwellings into commercial enterprises once called B&Bs but now called STRs.

- Rose Kanusky

Sources: City Code § 35-3311 as amended, KWA Archives (Central Library), San Antonio Express-News