Rights of Austin short-term rentals don’t trump neighborhood zoning

In suing the city of Austin over its short-term rental ordinance, the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims the city is violating the constitutional protections of property owners, who would be restricted in using their homes as venues for late-night Bible studies, bingo games or for slumber parties for the kids. Good heavens.

That is a stretch. If such rights exist at all, they so because the city granted them by calling short-term rentals something other than what they are: businesses. In the case of Type 2 short-term rentals, the city should have been more specific by identifying them as party venues, minimotels or boutique lodgings.

Had the previous City Council that crafted the initial ordinance governing short-term rental properties called them by their correct names, the issues raised in the lawsuit would be moot since city zoning laws prohibit hotels or entertainment venues of any size — and nearly all other businesses — from operating in residential neighborhoods zoned for single families.


Lest you get the wrong idea, I don’t oppose Type 1 short-term rentals, akin to an age-old practice of a homeowner renting out a room, one’s house or garage apartment for a period of time to earn extra money.

In her retirement, my grandmother — Esther Harrison — made ends meet by renting out spare rooms weekly in her Queens home to people who couldn’t afford apartments or qualify for leases. And each year I move closer to doing that in Austin as I watch friends collect big money for renting space in their homes during South by Southwest or the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Such practices have been going on for some time, but they now are on steroids because of social media and the internet, which allow millions of people across the world to connect and do business in a so-called sharing economy.

Responding to such dynamics, the Austin City Council in 2012 drafted short-term rental policies. The business boomed: Aside from individual homeowners renting their spaces, Austin became a lucrative market for online vacation home businesses, such as HomeAway and Airbnb. But the limits of the initiative became clear as short-term rentals, particularly Type 2 rentals, collided with neighborhood life.

Earlier this year, Austin residents showed up in large numbers at City Hall to complain that Type 2 units were party houses or minihotels operating in the heart of neighborhoods. The city has more than 400 licensed Type 2 rentals, which are owned by someone who doesn’t live on site and are leased for less than 30 days at a time to guests throughout the year. In February, the City Council voted to phase out Type 2 units by 2022.

The council kept Type 1 short-term rentals, in which the owners live on the same site as the rental unit. They still are allowed in residential areas, but other regulations were passed to make them more amenable to neighborhoods. Austin has about 700 licensed Type 1 short-term rental units.

Against that backdrop, the Texas Public Policy Foundation sued the city last week on behalf of seven residents. It claims that city rules allowing no more than 10 people to stay in each short-term rental property, limit gatherings outside of them to just six people and ban outdoor activities between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. are unconstitutional.

Those rules, the foundation asserts, would prevent lessees from hosting Bible studies or bingo games that go late into the night, or a slumber party for their children. It also targets the city’s ban on Type 2 units.

They should be reminded that neighborhood zoning that governs what is allowed in single-family areas promotes measures protecting the rights of neighborhoods and the people who live in them against the noise, frenzy and congestion of businesses and commercial enterprises — and not the other way around, as those bringing the lawsuit would have us believe. There are exceptions, such as home businesses, which ban signage and limit to one the number of people one can employ on site. Urban farms are another exception.


Single-family zoning is why you don’t find a manufacturing plant, medical office building or warehouse in most neighborhoods. And it’s why the City Council must tread carefully when it comes to accommodating businesses that seek to operate in residential neighborhoods. As a home rule city, Austin has the legal authority to decide zoning matters within its boundaries, the right to decide the appropriate locations for commercial enterprises and for the places in which people live.

For many of us, our homes are our biggest investment, and renting out space for less than 30 days is a way to help pay rising tax bills we’re all dealing with in Austin. But the character of our neighborhoods must be factored in that calculation and weighed against someone’s desire to turn a buck.

In Austin, the value of our neighborhood life and the respite it offers is priceless.

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