THE DUPLEX on a quiet cul-de-sac just off Bonaventure Road doesn't look like a raging bastion of illegal activity, but owner Sue Martinez assures she is squarely on the wrong side of the law.
The zoning laws, that is.
Since August 2013, the middle-aged retiree has been offering up her bedrooms through Airbnb, the uber-popular website that brokers lodging between travelers and those with an extra apartment, room or even a couch to rent. She charges between $45-60 a night and usually fixes her guests breakfast for free.
“I enjoy it, I get to meet new people from all over the world,” says Martinez. “”
She was hosting a special needs teacher from the UK named Paul last week, who is using Airbnb exclusively on a month-long tour of the U.S.
“It’s a home away from home, isn’t it?” peeped Paul from the sofa as he finished a plate of frittata.
Martinez says though she only rents to vetted Airbnb users and keeps the outside of her home attractive and clean, her neighbors have complained, prompting theZoning Department to issue her a citation for operating an illegal bed-and-breakfast last April. The Health Department also paid her a visit to follow up on the legality of cooking for her guests, but no charges were filed. She plans to keep hosting travelers while awaiting a court date in November.
“I pay my mortgage, I pay my taxes, why shouldn’t I have guests in my own home?” she asks. “Something needs to change here.”
The popularity of the new “sharing economy”—using one’s own property to generate income, including their own homes and cars through sites like Uber and Lyft—has gained traction in destination cities large and small. Also known as “collaborative consumption,” it presents no small threat to the hotel and taxi industries. It also has municipalities struggling to keep up with regulating these new micro-businesses.
The rise of Airbnb as well as short-term rental sites like VRBO represents millions in potential tax revenue—if cities can catch it. A recent report announced that three-fourths of Airbnb listings in New York City remain illegal as the company reaped $40 million in profits.
Portland adopted a revenue-collection policy for short-term rentals earlier this year, and San Francisco’s board of supervisors recently passed legislation legalizing Airbnb rentals and allowing the city to collect taxes.
In Savannah, a draft of an amendment that would help define the legalities of short-term rentals (less than 30 days) is slated for a first reading by the City Council this Thursday, Oct. 30.
“The purpose of the amendment is to define short-term vacation rentals...in the zoning ordinance to include a definition, zoning districts where permitted, use conditions and parking standards,” explains Bridget Lidy of the Tourism Management & Ambassadorship Department.
“As part of the meeting, the first reading will also be held for the ordinance to regulate short-term rentals through a certificate process including the procedure to obtain business approval, payment of taxes and violations.”
Even if the amendment passes, it will deal exclusively with VRBO listings and will not exonerate Airbnb hosts, who are often not aware of the complex zoning ordinances that govern their homes. In Savannah, the broad “residential,” “mixed use” and “commercial” classifications break down into dozens of smaller categories, each with a list of prohibited uses.
Martinez didn’t know that renting rooms for a few days at a time was illegal until she received the citation. She was prompted to research the Municipal Code and discovered her duplex is zoned R6a, which not only prohibits her from renting out her rooms, but from generating almost any type of income out of her home.
“That means it’s illegal for me tutor Spanish, teach guitar, make jam at home and deliver it elsewhere,” she says. “This is a fairly low-income area, and anyone who is trying to supplement their incomes at home is a criminal? That’s outrageous.”
She is planning to propose a text amendment to the code that would expand the zone’s residential allowances.
Martinez has also been advised that since the City has no actual ordinance to cover Airbnb rentals, the judicial interpretation of her citations may not be valid under the traditional bed-and-breakfast header.
Martinez has filed an appeal against the Zoning Department and has contacted District 3 Alderman John Hall for support.
“I’m conflicted with whole thing. I understand the zoning issues and the concerns of the neighbors,” deliberates Hall.
“But I also feel like she ought be able to do what she wants with her property within reason. She’s not hurting anybody.”
He says he’ll ask questions on behalf of Airbnb hosts at Thursday’s meeting, but reminds that he must work with the rest of the council.
“I’m just one person up there,” says Hall.