Like many landlords in Richmond’s housing rental market, Lacy Williams faces a zoning dilemma worthy of the digital age.
The realtor at Joyner Fine Properties is busy on a website hawking rooms and housing available for short-term rent to spectators of the UCI World Road Championship bicycle race, coming Sept. 19-27. Officials expect an average of 41,500 visitors from beyond the Richmond area for six of the nine days.
But she’s being squeezed at two ends. City zoning ordinances still forbid renting for less than 30 days. Meanwhile, hotel rooms are getting snapped up, especially in the downtown area. And that’s heating up demand for private-room and home rentals.
“The city has said it is not illegal for me to advertise,” she says, even though zoning ordinances don’t allow short-term rentals. Williams has 14 such properties on her website. And last week there were 190 properties listed locally on Airbnb, an online marketplace for renting rooms.
About 1,000 people have signed a digital petition asking City Council to change the rules. A remedy is in the works, but it might not be enacted until a week or two before the race starts, maintaining the uncertainty.
Moves are afoot to address the conun-drum. Second District Councilman Charles Samuels says that his group finished a proposal June 22 that’s the first step in switching the zoning. “It’s a convoluted process,” says Samuels, who is leading the reform movement.
His proposal has gone to the Planning Commission, which will weigh in with details. Then it must go to a public hearing. Rules are then amended once more. Then they go to the council for a final vote.
What form the changes will take is unknown. They may allow short-term rentals of private property but add new requirements covering local taxes and insurance.
One possibility is that a zoning change goes forward with a sundown clause that expires after the bike race. That would be no good, Samuels says, “because it doesn’t address the Folk Festival or the Redskins training camp when people might want short-term rentals.”
Hotel rooms seem to be booking up fast. “Hotel sales are especially strong downtown,” says Paul Shanks, a spokesman for Richmond2015, which is organizing the race. A check of travel online services such as Expedia.com, Hotels.com and Travelocity.com show that some hotels, especially those in the midprice range, are listing “Hurry only four rooms left,” on their ads.
Through Expedia, Extended Stay America in Innsbrook was listed as having three rooms left at an average of $97 a night. Best Western Plus Glen Allen Inn had only one room left at $125 a night as of June 26.
One uncertainty is whether there are enough hotel rooms available. Richmond has about 18,000 hotel rooms. The region from Colonial Williamsburg to Charlottesville has another 40,000. That makes 58,000 rooms for an expected 41,500 bike-race spectators, on top of normal occupancy patterns.
Shanks doesn’t foresee a shortage. And he doesn’t want to comment on the problems of private room rentals. “We don’t have a dog in that fight,” he says.
Councilman Samuels notes that the time frame for changing the zoning is extremely tight. In the meantime, he says it’s still legal to advertise private rooms.
But some landlords using Airbnb for short-term rents have gotten into hot water already. John Giglia, who rents out some of his properties on Airbnb, including one in the Fan, was warned by zoning inspectors about the illegality of short-term rentals after a neighbor complained.
If the rules aren’t changed in time, Giglia suggests that authorities might simply look the other way when race time comes. Realtor Williams says she’s heard the same speculation.
So what should you do if you want to put a spare room up for rent online? “It’s a very good question,” Samuels says. “If you retain me as your lawyer, I’ll tell you.” S