No Rules: Will San Antonio Regulate Airbnb And HomeAway?

Hotel room? Hardly. This is a refurbished garage available for rent on Airbnb. - Courtesy
Hotel room? Hardly. This is a refurbished garage available for rent on Airbnb.

San Antonio is still smarting over the city's bitter fight against popular ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft.

And while that regulation battle lingers, the next one could be right around the corner.

Enter Airbnb and other housing rental services.

As Uber and Lyft threaten to pack up over what they see as city leaders driving them out of business with hefty fees, will the likes of Airbnb have the same fate?

Like Uber and Lyft, app-based services connecting riders with drivers, companies like Airbnb and HomeAway offer online services linking vacationers with people willing and able to open their homes to rent a room for the night.

These companies are growing in popularity. According to Austin-based HomeAway, demand for vacation rentals in San Antonio has increased 15 percent from 2009 to 2014, though the company declined to disclose specific figures.

Airbnb did not respond to requests for comment. Carl Shepherd, co-founder of similar outfit HomeAway, said business is brisk and looking up.

"We do have a growing demand in San Antonio and that implies faster growing supply," he said.

Unlike ride services, HomeAway and Airbnb haven't been targeted for regulation by San Antonio.

Not yet, anyway.

Just as critics deem ride-sharing programs as veiled taxi service, housing rental services could easily be targeted for being a smokescreen for homemade lodging businesses.

"Across the country, cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Madison, Wisconsin, have debated how best to regulate services like Airbnb and other businesses that are part of the so-called 'sharing economy,' considering issues ranging from zoning to public safety," Mayor Ivy Taylor told the Current. "To the best of my knowledge, we have not discussed regulating this emerging industry here in San Antonio."

City Councilman Ron Nirenberg, a vocal critic of San Antonio's ride-share regulations, echoed that point, going a step further than the mayor, saying it's time for the discussion to begin.

"We need to have a balanced conversation that weighs public safety with letting the free market work," Nirenberg said.

City leaders may still be sitting on it, but their counterparts at the neighborhood level aren't waiting around.

Cherise Bell, executive director of the King William Association, said the group already discussed the Airbnb issue at its board meeting last month.

The association identified six Airbnb locations in the historic neighborhood just south of downtown. It concluded that the city's ordinance regulating bed and breakfasts also applies to those offering rentals through Airbnb.

"Those are monitored by the city so it would be (the city's) function to regulate them," Bell said.

Beyond city leaders, it would seem that the powerful local hotel lobby wouldn't lay out the welcome mat to Airbnb.

The San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association couldn't make someone available for comment, but it previously came out strongly against Uber and Lyft.

One Airbnb user who rents a room to vacationers visiting San Antonio turned a languishing garage into a fully furnished apartment and decided to rent it out because he finds the service flexible and financially lucrative.

"There's potential to make some money with the space, but it's flexible too because I can still use it to have guests over when it's not occupied," he said, agreeing to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity due to fear of hassle and retaliation. "And there's a $1 million insurance policy that comes along with booking."

And Airbnb makes sure applicable taxes from rentals are paid, he said. In return for its services, Airbnb collects a 3 percent service fee for each completed booking.

Perhaps the main reason why city leadership hasn't yet taken up the issue for potential regulation is simply that it seems the service has barely inched into the Alamo City and hasn't raised many eyebrows — yet.

In other Texas metro areas, the rental service has already established a much stronger presence.

In Austin, for example, between HomeAway and Airbnb, there are more than 2,500 available vacation rentals. The Dallas-Fort Worth area shows more than 1,000 listings, about the same as in Houston.

San Antonio? Just over 500 so far.

Airbnb is incredibly popular in Austin with young professionals and the college crowd, yet the capitol city is first metro in Texas to enact an ordinance – apparently sans public controversy – specifically targeting Airbnb, which includes inspection, hotel occupancy taxes and a $285 fee to get a license for short-term rentals.

Seems that while it's rather quiet on the Airbnb front now, we could be at the cusp of the next Uber-like controversy as demand continues to grow – as well as the push for regulation.

"It may be simply that people aren't aware that this is a great use for a second home," Shepherd said.

The lower numbers in the Alamo City could also be linked to the city's widely established reputation for plentiful hotel rooms.

Just like with folks in ride-sharing side, those in the housing rental service don't like the sound of regulation one bit.

"We certainly don't invite any additional regulation," Shepherd said. "Not breaking what is not broken is a good idea."

But if city leaders do push for regulation, he hopes it's done through dialogue.

"If we have that conversation, it should be centered on making a transparent process for owners, travelers, renters and neighborhoods," Shepherd said.

He said San Antonio is ripe for vacation rentals via HomeAway — and similar companies — because of its robust convention and tourism industry.

That's certainly what the anonymous Airbnb user we interviewed is banking on.

"During Fiesta, I expect to be able make $700 in seven nights," he said.

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