By Susan Smith, MLA MEd
Editor’s note: At its May 19 meeting, Chapel Hill Town Council held a public hearing about whether to regulate short-term rentals (such as Airbnb and Vrbo). Because so many people signed up to speak, council limited each speaker to only 2 minutes. The law allows the public to send comments to the council for 24 hours after the hearing. Susan Smith, a former commissioner who served nine years on the town’s Historic District Commission, listened to the STR hearing that went on until after midnight. Her edited letter below is in response to council members’ reaction to public comments made at the hearing.
To: Mayor Pam Hemminger and council members Allen Buansi, Jessica Anderson, Amy Ryan, Hongbin Gu, Karen Stegman, Tai Huynh and Michael Parker:
Money, Money, Money … Mon- NEY. Remember that song? Please don’t let this become the rudder steering town council decisions. I hope that you will do your level best to think independently with conscience. How else will you catch the fair winds of equity to navigate these stormy waters? Many important decisions aren’t easy, but it seems that opposition is necessary to make our values clear and take a stand on them.
1. Residential properties owners must live in their residences only 60 percent of the time: Will residential even retain its meaning when STRs, and especially dedicated STRs financed by developers, are allowed to move in and turn residential living into an opportunity for financial gain? I don’t think so, do you? Really? And if you do amend the LUMO, 60 percent residency is not nearly enough. That’s barely over half the time. To keep our neighborhoods residential places, this percentage needs to be at least 80 percent.
If you don’t want STRs happening in your neighborhood, will you vote to allow it in others? Will this practice of dedicated STRs begin and occur more frequently in poorer neighborhoods? In apartment complexes? How will white privilege factor into this business venture?
STRs should especially be kept out of all our historic districts, otherwise larger and larger additions and oversized garages topped by apartments to these historic homes will be created for rental purposes and not for residential reasons.
Neighborhoods thrive on the safety built around neighbors who know and care for each other and their properties. We need your support to keep it that way. It helps our police force.
2. Allowing simultaneous rentals to occur on the same property, both inside the owner’s house as well as in their dedicated spaces for these rentals, and shifting enforcement of the regulation to neighbors who must file a public complaint: Simultaneous rentals? NO THANK YOU, for obvious reasons, and especially when neighbors are the ones who have to call out infractions. We don’t go away. We have to continue to live next to the ones we blow the whistle on … so the whistle often doesn’t get blown. And that’s already happening when it comes to over-parking in our historic districts.
3. Lowering the town’s minimum rental age from 21 to 18: Retain 21 DEFINITELY. Remember the adage, 40 is the new 30? Giving responsibility for STRs to 18-year-olds is not a high enough bar to set. Who is more likely to be responsible? Other-centeredness tends to increase with age. And in a college town, with sports events a primary reason for partying, why open that door wider by lowering the age to 18?
Consider the quality of our collective lives, and strengthen rather than weaken this amendment, if you decide to accept it. Better yet, say NO to STRs, and ABSOLUTELY NO to dedicated STRs.
A pilot program may sound reasonable, but it will just allow developers to get their foot in the door, making it much harder to reverse this pattern a year from now when even more investments have been made. Not a practical idea. And who will enforce the change in policy?
I hope my comments lead to insights in your deliberations. This is such a big issue for our town! I hope it continues to be discussed and next time given priority by being placed earlier in the agenda.
Thank you for your service,
Susan Smith, MLA, M.Ed.
Susan Smith is a former commissioner who served nine years on the town of Chapel Hill’s Historic District Commission.