Austin’s Code Enforcers Hit the Streets to Nab Short-Term Rental Rules Violators
By Megan Dolan
On a recent Friday night, Alan Guyton waves down an Uber car pulling away from a small house just west of downtown Austin. The passengers, a vacationing couple from Chicago, are headed to the Rainey Street entertainment district. They’re surprised when Guyton tells them the place they’re renting is unlicensed and illegal.
Guyton, a city of Austin code enforcement officer, assures them they don’t have to move. The owner, however, will get a violation notice and a warning to get a license or face a fine.
The couple from Chicago could chalk up the encounter to a taste of Austin weirdness. But, for Guyton and his partner, Paul Estrada, it was just another episode at the front lines of Austin’s efforts to reconcile a growing short-term rental market with the problems it brings to some neighborhoods. Guyton and Estrada, both 31, drive off in their white city pickup to check out other unlicensed rentals as well as properties that have generated complaints. Before their shift is over, they’ll visit another West Austin house that once drew 10 complaints in a single day.
“There’s rules, and you have to follow those rules,” says Estrada.
Guyton and Estrada are part of an increased city focus on short-term rentals – homes, condominiums or apartments that owners rent out for a few days or weeks. There are about 1,200 licensed short-term rentals in Austin, and probably many more that are not, according to a 2012 city report. They’re a popular alternative to hotels for tourists. But complaints are growing that some are nothing more than loud party houses and neighborhood nuisances.
The City Council passed an ordinance in 2012 to regulate short-term rentals and has amended it twice, including a recent moratorium on new licenses for Type 2 rentals – properties where the owner does not live. The city requires owners of all short-term rentals to get a license, limits occupancy to six unrelated people, and requires the owners to pay occupancy taxes, just as hotels do. The initial license costs $285 and must be renewed annually.
Guyton and Estrada are part of a team that tracks down illegal rentals and issues violation notices when properties don’t comply with the ordinance. The owners face fines and administrative hearings if they don’t correct the problem. The city can file a lien against the property if the owner does not pay.
Until this past summer, only two code enforcement officers were assigned to short-term rentals. In September, Guyton and Estrada joined the team, which has grown to six.
“We only had two people to address the whole city of Austin, which is unreal to even try to be able to do,” Guyton said. Then short-term rentals became “a hot topic” with the City Council because of neighborhood complaints about raucous parties and other issues. “That’s when they created this team which is called the STEP, the short-term enforcement program.”
With the increased staff, the officers are able to do patrols on Friday and Saturday nights, from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. — the peak period for complaints, according to code enforcement officer Roxanne Evans.
During the week, code inspectors compile lists of properties that have generated complaints, including repeat offenders. Guyton said there are 10 to 20 properties on the list every weekend. They also check out properties their supervisor has flagged.
“We ride by and if the light is dark, there’s no activity, we don’t bother them,” Guyton said.” We’re not going to wake people up in the middle of the night.”
If the lights are on or they can see people in or around the house, they knock on the door. They’ll give the owner a notice with a limited time to correct the issue. They circle back to some properties multiple times, hoping someone will answer the door. Many do not.
“The last thing we want to do is go to court and do all this, go to administrative hearings,” Estrada said. “We just want people to comply and we want people to rent out their properties. We’re not the bad people.”
Online sites such as Homeaway.com and Airbnb.com list hundreds of Austin properties, ranging from tiny cottages to luxury condominums downtown.
For some Austin residents, renting out their homes is a necessary source of income. Kim Eitze, 49, is a henna artist who teaches hula hooping. She doesn’t make enough to pay the property taxes on the house she inherited in the Bouldin neighborhood. Her family has owned the lot since the 1930s. She has been renting out the home on Airbnb for three years.
“I’ve got a $12,000 property tax bill due in January. The only way that I pay it is through Airbnb,” Eitze said.
Eitze says she does her best to obey city regulations but said the frequent changes makes it difficult to keep track of all of her responsibilities. Still, she said she also wants the city to deal with the problem houses.
“We don’t mind the regulations to make things safe. I don’t mind paying a fee,” Eitze said. “We just want them to go after the party houses. None of us want that. We’re trying to be legitimate businesses.”
Some situations can get dicey for the code officers, such as encounters with obstreperous drunk partiers. An unmarked police cruiser follows the code department truck on nighttime patrols in case a situation escalates or an issue arises that’s a police matter, such as noise ordinance violations.
Estrada said that although he hasn’t yet faced any violent situations, there is always the threat that a situation could become heated. Code inspectors are trained to defuse situations.
“We don’t carry weapons,” Guyton said. “We’re the flashlight guys.”
The City Council recently approved several amendments to the regulations, most of them proposed by District 10 Council Member Sheri Gallo and District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo. Both represent districts where residents have complained about short-term rentals. They include the occupancy limit and new inspection requirements in order to get a license.
Mike Polston, 64, a retired computer specialist who lives in Gallo’s district, said a rental house in his neighborhood has been a continual nuisance, with loud fraternity parties and other events. Polston is skeptical that the code department will be able to cause significant change with or without new regulations.
“It’s theoretically out of control in a moment’s notice, anywhere in Austin,” Polston said. “The whole City of Austin code thing fundamentally does not work. Even if they add more regulations, it’s my opinion that it still won’t work, because they’re not managing and policing it the way it needs to be policed.”
He said short-term rentals don’t belong in residential areas.
“I continue to argue with the city that, through a layman’s definition, this is a commercial hotel and they don’t allow commercial hotels to operate in a single-family-zoned area,” Polston said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the high end of the price range or the low end or the mid-range. It’s the same nuisance any place in town.”
As they started their recent Friday nigh shift, Guyton and Estrada scan the list of properties they need to visit. Most are in West Austin, where there is a concentration of short-term rentals.
“Oh, there’s Barry again,” Guyton says, as he recognizes the name of the chronic offender whose rental drew 10 complaints one day. Neighbors have complained repeatedly about too many people in the house and other issues. Guyton and Estrada knock on the door and announce themselves as city employees. Lights are on and a dog is barking, but no one answers.
It’s the same at six more houses over about two hours. In some cases, Guyton said, owners have told renters to ignore code officers, or to tell them to get off the property.
“People say ‘code isn’t doing their job’,” Guyton says. “If only they knew.”