Whether wilfully or out of ignorance, Charlestonians are blatantly disobeying the city's ban on short-term rentals. It's illegal for homeowners to rent out residential properties for periods of less than 30 days at a time in most parts of Charleston, but a quick search on Airbnb.com and VRBO.com — popular listing sites for short-term rentals — reveals that scores of homeowners are doing it anyway.
Since City Council passed an ordinance regulating short-term rentals in January 2012, the task of enforcement has fallen to the Department of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability, where city employees search the listing sites for evidence and follow up on tips they receive from community members. Since ramping up enforcement 10 months ago, Director Tim Keane says his department has netted about four violators per month. People accused of offering illegal short-term rentals are tried in Livability Court, where they can face up to $1,092 in fines or 30 days in jail if found guilty.
Still, enticing listings abound online: a gorgeous South of Broad carriage house for $225 a night, a bohemian bedroom with en suite bathroom in Harleston Village for $95, a cozy yacht on the harbor for $200.
One person who has been caught in the planning department's dragnet is Bobbie Rose, a Harleston Village resident who previously ran for Congress in 2012 and City Council in 2013. She and her husband rented out a basement suite in their two-story colonial house, and, judging by the voluminous and glowing reviews in their guestbook, made a lot of people feel welcome. "Thanks so much for allowing us to stay in your lovely home," one guest wrote. "We love the Charleston charm of your place, and your home is so conveniently close to all the fun shops downtown."
According to Rose, her house also received positive reviews on Airbnb, where public opinion can make or break a host.
"It's really a self-monitoring thing, because if you're not delivering what you're saying you're delivering, you get bad reviews and you no longer can rent your space," Rose says. "And the same with guests: If it's a rowdy guest or loud or anything, they get a bad review, and people just will not rent to them."
Rose says she initially wanted to operate a bed and breakfast in her house, but when she tried to apply for a license from the city, she learned that the city only allows homeowners to operate a B&B in the Old and Historic District if their house was built before 1860. Rose's home, built in 1905, didn't make the antebellum cut. So she turned to Airbnb.
"I have a large house, I have a daughter away at college, I have a son who works out of town, my husband works out of town a lot, and it just made sense. It seemed ridiculous not to use some of this space," Rose says.
Rose and her husband, Tom Ucciferri, say they originally renovated the basement suite for their mothers to stay in when the steps to the front porch became too difficult to climb. When guests came to stay in the suite, they were greeted with a bottle of cabernet and encouraged to use a pair of complimentary bicycles to get around town.
Keane says the city has caught homeowners who rent out their homes short-term and live entirely out of town. "The primary concern with the short-term rentals is having these houses that are owned for the sole purpose of doing short-term rentals," Keane says.
But Rose says she lives in her house and has only rented out the basement suite. At her Feb. 23 Livability Court date, Rose says she tried to argue that her constitutional rights had been violated. "I argued that it was a 14th Amendment violation because I wasn't being offered equal protection and equal use of my home, without a justifiable reason," Rose says.
Judge Michael Molony found her guilty and, according to Rose, sentenced her to 30 days in jail — to be suspended if she paid the city the equivalent of a 2-percent hospitality tax on all of her rental revenue from 2014. Airbnb hosts are required to pay federal taxes, but in places where short-term rentals are illegal, they don't pay state, county, or municipal taxes, which can add up to about 13.5 percent in Charleston.
"I told him I'd be happy to pay my taxes, but there's no mechanism for me to pay my taxes if they're saying it's an illegal activity," Rose says. "So they told me how much I owed and I gave them a check."
According to Rose, the city's enforcement actions aren't deterring some rental hosts. "I don't know if once they give you a ticket they ignore you, but several people have gotten tickets and now are operating again, just playing the odds, I guess," she says.
The short-term rental ordinance is a relatively recent creation, passed in January 2012, but the regulations for bed and breakfast houses go all the way back to 1931. Keane says his department would be willing to reconsider the 1860 cutoff date in the Old and Historic District, but the decision would ultimately be up to City Council.
"I will say that we have been approached about making some refinements to the bed and breakfast ordinance itself, including addressing that date issue, and we think that's a good idea," Keane says.
There is one neighborhood where short-term rentals are legal: Cannonborough-Elliotborough. Under the 2012 ordinance, the owners of houses in the peninsular neighborhood with certain types of commercial zoning can apply for a business license to offer short-term rentals. Hosts are prohibited from putting a sign in front of their house, and they must keep the commercial section of their property physically separate from the residential section.
"We were the only neighborhood that wanted it," says Bob Holt, who was chairman of the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association's Design & Development Committee when the city ordinance passed in 2012. He says members of the neighborhood association voted 107-3 in favor of asking the city's permission to do short-term rentals, and he started talking with city officials as early as 2009 about legalizing Airbnb. But when the city started floating the idea, he says he was taken aback by the opposition from other neighborhood associations.
"You would have thought that we were suggesting the most horrible thing. The neighborhoods were up in arms, every neighborhood except ours," Holt says. "They said it would destroy the fabric of the neighborhood, turn the neighborhood into Disneyland, commercialize the neighborhood. It was just a whole litany of horrors."
Eventually, City Council passed a compromise ordinance that Holt says has allowed his neighborhood to act as a "test" of short-term rentals.
"If we don't have hookers on the street in front of these places or whatever the ills and whatever miscreants it's going to bring into the neighborhood — when all these horrible things don't happen (because they don't), maybe those other neighborhoods will rethink their position and opt in," Holt says.
According to Holt, the effect in his neighborhood has been positive, and some homeowners have spent money renovating and improving their properties just for the purpose of short-term rentals. "We think it has a low impact, it's not a hotel, and it has less of an impact than college kids renting," Holt says.
Opposition remains strong in some other peninsula neighborhoods.
South of Broad, where a recent online search turned up 20 available short-term rentals, Charlestowne Neighborhood Association President Jay Williams says, "I think the tendency is for people to be opposed to it." Elizabeth Bradham, a member of the neighborhood association's board, says the neighborhood is "vehemently opposed" to short-term rentals.
"They create huge problems in our neighborhood," Bradham says. "They typically become sort of party houses, whether it's somebody renting it for a group of guys coming down here for the weekend, or we had a bachelorette party down the street the other weekend. You know, it's noise, traffic, beer cans in the front yard, all of the above."
Frank Rupp, president of the Harleston Village Neighborhood Association, says he is aware of illegal short-term rentals in his neighborhood (including Rose's) and opposes them because the homeowners aren't paying their taxes — including the 2-percent accommodations tax and the 6-percent property tax assessment on commercial properties.
"If they agreed to do all of those things, have their records public, pay their business license fee, pay their taxes accordingly, then ... I still can't say I would be in support because I don't want every house in Harleston Village to become a little bed and breakfast," Rupp says.
Robert Ballard, president of the Radcliffeborough Neighborhood Association, says he remembers the last time Charlestonians rushed into the accommodations business. In the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, as homeowners renovated and rebuilt, he says many homeowners tried to convert their homes into inns.
"It was a nightmare in terms of people wanting to be in the business, but they didn't have things like parking, things like waste pickup," Ballard says.
Keane says that before code enforcement officers issue a court summons, they give homeowners a five-day warning to cease short-term rentals.
"That's a constant process, going to people first and saying, 'You might not know this, but that's not legal, you can't do that. You can't rent a place for less than 30 days,'" Keane says. "So we're constantly doing that, but then the next step if they don't [stop] is to issue them a summons to Livability Court."
In practice, this has not always been the case.
John Tecklenburg, a commercial realtor and candidate for mayor of Charleston, says his wife Sandra didn't receive a warning before getting a court summons for a short-term rental violation at a house in the Neck. "We never received a warning," Tecklenburg says. "If we had, we would have stopped immediately and taken responsibility, as we did when we got the citation." Tecklenburg's wife was found guilty in June 2014 and paid a fine. (Read more about Tecklenburg's case here).
Kathleen Russell, a Radcliffeborough homeowner who was found guilty of illegal short-term rentals in August 2014, says she and her husband had been hosting foreign doctors and medical researchers at their house for about 19 years before websites like Airbnb and VRBO came into the picture. She says she immediately took her online listings down after reading about the city's enforcement actions early in the summer of 2014, but she says a code enforcement officer showed up at her house three months later and handed a court summons to one of her tenants.
As for Bobbie Rose, she says someone delivered a warning to her house in January about her Airbnb listings, but since it was addressed to her husband and he was out of town at the time, she didn't open it until it was too late.
Recently, on Good Friday, Rose says a code enforcement officer came to her door and handed her a second citation for illegal short-term rentals. She says the officer told her a neighbor had made a complaint. Her court date is set for April 20.
If she is found guilty, Rose could be the Livability Court's first repeat offender of the short-term rental ban. After receiving a suspended jail sentence at her first court appearance, Rose says she's not sure how Judge Molony will handle her case.
"Just the thought of going to jail, that greatly concerns me," Rose says. "I'm quite sure he won't be as lenient, and in all fairness maybe he shouldn't be."
In the meantime, Rose plans to make a case against the ordinance itself during the public comment session at City Council on Mon. April 13. Rose compares Charleston's short-term rental ban to the city's crusade against the ride-hailing service Uber, another instance where city officials resisted a technology-based industry change that continued undeterred.
"I feel like this is a lot like Uber in that this is going to come, and I think the fact that they're not addressing it is just prolonging the fact," Rose says.