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Metro Atlanta cities wrestle with whether to ban Airbnb or cash in

Ian Trenbeath was having trouble selling his three-bedroom Marietta home, so nearly six years ago he took a chance listing it for rent on a new site called Airbnb. Every year since has been profitable.

But Trenbeath said he’s keeping a close eye on the chance that Marietta could join other metro cities imposing regulations on the short-term rental business.

As Atlanta’s tourism booms, so too does the market for short-term rental stays through services like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway. But some city governments have tightened their grip on the services, making homeowners apply for a permit and pay taxes like a hotel or motel.

“Some of the regulation that’s come out so far has been specifically to restrict what property owners are able to do,” Trenbeath said. “I’m not happy to see that, (but) I can understand some of why it’s happened.”

Most metro Atlanta cities do not have laws in the books specifically addressing Airbnbs. And Marietta is not working on anything specifically regulating short-term rentals, spokeswoman Lindsey Wiles said.

Justin and Charalaina Heard lease their Edgewood bungalow on Airbnb. The couple was featured in an AJC article earlier this year about Airbnb parterning with the NAACP to create a program aimed at increasing diversity. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

But other cities see an opportunity to not only exert control over a new business model, but also make extra cash. BrookhavenSandy Springs and Atlanta require hosts to get a permit or license and pay an excise tax. Others, such as Dunwoody and Peachtree Corners, specifically outlaw renting a space for less than a month.

It remains to be seen how enforceable these regulations are, and whether hosts will go through their city’s permitting process before posting their property online. Stern rules could turn hosts away; in Sandy Springs, where officials have an ongoing monitoring system, more than 200 short-term rentals chose to shut down this year rather than register with the city.

Trenbeath is an administrator in a Facebook group for Atlanta-area Airbnb hosts, where members swap stories and discuss best practices for customer service and bookkeeping.

“As you can imagine, running an Airbnb is essentially like being a small business owner,” he said. While he enjoys the income his rental brings, Trenbeath worries that he and other hosts “could be impacted at any time by a whim of a regulator at the county level or city level.”

Room to grow

In the last year alone, the number of available short-term rentals in the city of Atlanta more than doubled, from about 3,930 properties in March 2018, to 8,650 this March, according to data from AirDNA, which analyzes rental data. Much of that surge could be because of the Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in February.

Airbnb said its Georgia hosts welcomed a total of 1.1 million guests last year, and made a collective $158 million. Fulton County alone had 477,000 visitors through Airbnb.

Many travelers view Airbnbs as simpler, more personal and sometimes less expensive than a traditional hotel stay. Local property owners use them as a way to make some extra money without becoming a full-time landlord.

What to know about Airbnb Super Bowl prices in Atlanta Hotels are lacking vacancies, and Airbnb prices are rising astronomically as Super Bowl 53 nears. With all of downtown Atlanta hotels booked, the options are now limited to the suburbs. Cobb County reports that more than 60 percent of its hotel rooms have been booked, but hot spots like the Omni Hotel at the Battery are already booked.

Cities would benefit from regulating short-term rentals because they operate like hotels, and therefore should pay the appropriate business taxes, said Georgia Municipal Association governmental relations director Thomas Gehl.

It’s also important to cities to consider whether hosts are listing on Airbnb “in the appropriate places in their community,” Gehl said.

“There needs to be a serious conversation about allowing these properties to spring up,” he said, “but in other areas there certainly is room for discussion and location of these short-term rental properties.”

Earlier this year, a law was proposed in the state Legislature that would have prohibited local governments from setting rules and regulations for short-term rentals, but it did not pass.

Many cities, many different rules

Roswell is one of the cities that does not have a law in the books regulating services like Airbnb. The city’s finance director Ryan Luckett said industry analysts have told him Roswell loses between $40,000 to $50,000 in hotel-motel tax revenue every year by not having regulations.

Roswell’s elected officials on Wednesday asked city staff to find a solution to regulating Airbnbs. Luckett added that, as of March, the city had 220 active Airbnb hosts charging a median nightly rate of $125.

Some council members at the meeting Wednesday said they were worried about strangers staying in neighborhoods with children for extended amounts of time. Mayor Lori Henry said she often stays in Airbnbs and has a theory of how this will play out in Roswell: “I think that what we’re going to find is that everybody likes the idea of Airbnb, but just not in my neighborhood.”

» CITY BY CITY: How to list your home on Airbnb in metro Atlanta

» RELATED: Airbnb working to increase diversity of hosts after discrimination allegations

Tuesday night, the Brookhaven City Council passed regulations allowing Airbnb rentals, after effectively banning them in residential areas for several months. The new ordinance comes with some strict rules, though: A permit is required and hosts cannot list their home for more than 180 days (about six months) per year.

That provision was added to keep people from buying a home in Brookhaven “solely to use for purposes of being an Airbnb,” Councilwoman Linley Jones said. Jones was initially hesitant to support short-term rentals, worrying residential neighborhoods could become a revolving door for visitors.

“That’s greatest danger of all: All of a sudden, you don’t have real neighbors anymore. All of a sudden, you have basically hotels all around you,” she said.


READ MORE LOCAL COVERAGE: 

» Roswell ponders how to regulate, make money from Airbnb services

» It just got easier to be an Airbnb host in one part of metro Atlanta


The cities of Atlanta, Sandy Springs and South Fulton also have regulations requiring hosts to pay a business license fee and the hotel-motel tax. Notably, when Sandy Springs started enforcing its ordinance earlier this year, only one host went through with the process of being licensed and paying taxes. The other 206 hosts stopped listing their properties for short-term renting, city spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said. Sandy Springs has made $1,172 in hotel-motel taxes from short-term renting.

In Dunwoody, city code specifically outlaws renting a space for less than 30 days. But if a Dunwoody homeowner decides to rent to visitors through Airbnb, the city would realistically only know to investigate if a complaint was filed, city spokeswoman Jennifer Boettcher said.

Many other municipalities have no laws on the books, including Lawrenceville, Milton, Alpharetta, Chamblee, Smyrna and Marietta. Most cities in Gwinnett County don’t have any specific policy related to Airbnb. Peachtree Corners is an exception, essentially banning them by disallowing any rental under 31 days. Lilburn regulates short term rentals as if they were a bed and breakfast.

— AJC staff reporters Ben Brasch, Amanda Coyne and Kristal Dixon contributed to this report.

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