Short-Term Rentals Erode Neighborhoods


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.

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3 Comments on "Short-Term Rentals Erode Neighborhoods"

  1. Thank you Susan Smith for standing up for neighborhoods. Thriving neighborhoods are indeed dependent on neighbors knowing and caring for one another.
    STRs are a business/industry. Most businesses must operate in areas zoned for business. Most people don’t want to live next to a business, thus residential zoning. It seems most inequitable to purchase a home, then have one’s city allow investor to operate a mini hotel next door within residential zoning.
    If STRs were mostly mom and pop, I expect hotels would effectively lobby against them. STRs are instead frequently big business. The big losers are adjacent homeowners who have to be more mindful of frequent strangers; strangers whose conduct will vary, and strangers who may feel less beholden/respectful towards adjacent homeowners.

  2. Frances Gravely | May 31, 2021 at 4:34 am | Reply

    SUsan Smith is right on every point. STR’s should not be allowed in historic districts at all. They are already shrinking as investors buy houses and rent them now causing noise and trash and over parking by students. We need families to have communities in historic districts. But stricter limits on STRs should be elsewhere in town too to preserve neighborhoods for families. We’ve plenty of hotels to handle visitors.

  3. Unfortunately the author of this article is falling prey to the numerous false allegations that the hotel industry is pushing forward. Yes, it would be desirable to limit STR’s in the historic area, but I have been doing STR’s for 20 years and have never had a problem. Chapel Hill is not a tourist town like New York City or San Francisco, and does not have enough STR demand to cause investors to swoop in and buy up properties all over town. I researched all 911 disturbance calls over a 1 year period, and over 1,500 such calls, only 3 were attributed to STR’s. One was a dog barking, another one was a trash can not taken back after pickup. Why not deal with the other 1,497 disturbance calls? Maybe student rentals should be banned since they cause the majority of problems? Airbnb and VRBO have a review process by which guests and hosts get to review each other after a rental, and these reviews are posted online for future reservations. This ensures that problematic STR’s and/or guests are quickly blacklisted. And in the RARE event of a problem, the police can be called to issue a citation just like with any other disturbance. Furthermore, having done both short and long term rentals for many years, STR guests are gone quickly, but it takes weeks or months to evict a long-term problematic tenant. STR hosts provide housing for many families for whom a cramped motel room is not a good fit. These families visit their children at UNC, support a family member undergoing treatment at UNC hospitals, attend family events such as funerals and reunions, those looking to re-locate to Chapel Hill, and researchers at UNC. I am currently hosting a contract worker who has been doing Covid testing at UNC Hospitals. Such guests provide much needed revenue for local businesses which would be lost if they have to go to Carrboro or Durham. The whole controversy over STR’s is a solution looking for a problem to solve. Please don’t fall for the false allegations and the “what-if’s” that have no evidence backing them up. This country is founded on free enterprise, and if you’ve ever taken an Uber instead of a taxi, remember that taxis tried to ban Ubers when they first appeared on the scene.

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