Officials from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration told the City Council on Thursday that the city had made major strides in ramping up the city’s historically lax enforcement of short-term rental laws, although more progress is still needed.
Chief Zoning Official Ashley Becnel told the council that the city’s short-term rental administration had essentially doubled its capacity to catch illegal STRs since last year. And she said that the implementation of a new software to automatically catch illegal listings online was starting to bear fruit.
At the same time, the office has only been able to fill roughly half of the department’s 23 budgeted positions. And the city has only held 43 adjudications — the process of bringing the alleged violator in front of a third-party hearing officer — to issue STR fines so far this year, according to the administration’s Thursday presentation. That pales in comparison to the nearly 1,000 potential illegal listings the city’s new software has identified over the last two months.
“We would like for it to be higher,” Becnel told The Lens following the meeting.
Becnel said that once the office is fully staffed, the goal would be to drastically increase the number of adjudications to 600 per year.
As has been repeatedly reported, the council has struggled for years to get Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to adequately enforce the laws the council passed in 2019 to reign in the rapid proliferation of STRs around the city. Over the past year, the administration has made repeated promises to ramp up its enforcement efforts. And on Thursday, several council members said they were pleased to see some progress.
“This is certainly the right direction,” Councilman Oliver Thomas said.
Thursday’s presentation, however, comes at a time of uncertainty about the future of the city’s STR restrictions. In August, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a key portion of the city’s current STR law was unconstitutional.
The council, in response, announced that it would completely re-write the city’s regulations. The council also passed a total moratorium on new residential STR licenses to ensure the city wouldn’t be flooded with new applications in the meantime.
None of the city’s STR laws have been officially struck down in court yet, Councilman JP Morrell told The Lens in an interview. But he said that the council would move forward with rewriting the laws regardless of the ongoing lawsuit that a group of STR owners brought against the city in 2019 to challenge the restrictions.
Morrell has repeatedly criticized the existing laws for being overly permissive.
“I committed when I ran that I was for a wholesale rewrite,” Morrell said. “What people should anticipate is that it’s going to be significantly more restrictive than it is currently.”
Morrell said that the process to rewrite the laws would begin in earnest after the council finished passing the 2023 budget in late November. While he couldn’t say exactly what the end product will be, he did say the new law would “definitely” place a limit on how many STRs can exist on one block face.
He also said that although the existing laws are being replaced, it was important for the city to get its enforcement procedures straightened out to be ready to enforce the new ones.
The enforcement process
So far this year, the city has adjudicated 42 STR cases leading to a total of $151,835 in fines, Becnel told the council. The highest fine was $25,575, and the average fine was $3,615.
Becnel said that the current enforcement process starts when the STR office gets a potential lead, largely through citizen complaints or a new software from the technology company Granicus, which scraps data on listings from websites like Airbnb and checks them against the city’s own permitting data. Becnel said that in the last 60 days alone, the software has already created 918 “leads” for properties being rented out without a license.
After that, the office will follow up to determine whether they are legitimate violations. If they are, the city sends the property a notice giving them two weeks to resolve the violation. In the case of unpermitted rentals, that means stopping all rentals and advertisements. If the violation continues after two weeks, the city can move forward with penalties.
But the process of enforcing penalties isn’t automatic. It requires adjudication.
“We have to present all our short term rental cases to a neutral third party hearing officer, which essentially is like a judge,” Becnel said after the meeting. “So we have to prove to a third party there’s a violation.”
In order to bring a case to adjudication, the office needs to prepare enough evidence to prove the violations exist. In some cases that can be easy, like proving a property was advertising without a license. But Becnel said others can be trickier, like proving an unlicensed property was actually rented, rather than just advertised. She said the Granicus software has helped a lot with evidence gathering.
Becnel said that the limited number of STR adjudications comes down to two factors — having enough staff to prove cases and enough hearing officers to rule on those cases. Becnel said the city is close to issuing a public bid for additional hearing officers, and that the STR office was still in the process of hiring all 23 of its budgeted positions. The office currently has 12 employees, according to the presentation.
“We have said within 3 months of being fully staffed, which we’re about half way there, we believe we can adjudicate 50 cases per month, for a total of 600 per year,” Becnel said.
*Correction: This story has been updated wth the accurate name of the city’s chief zoning official.