Stopping Charlotte's Airbnb 'party houses'
Charlotte's City Council votes tonight on a new development ordinance, but it won't include rules on short-term rentals that many residents favor
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Neighbors complain about unruly parties in short-term rental houses — and Charlotte seems powerless to halt them; ‘Constant party zone’ in Wesley Heights, rap video in Elizabeth
Both sides of this duplex on 7th Street in Elizabeth are listed on Airbnb. Although each listing is advertised for up to six guests, neighbors have witnessed large parties with over eight cars parked in the driveway and on the street. (Ledger photo—house number obscured for privacy reasons)
By Lindsey Banks
The 1,840-square-foot duplex on 7th Street looks like many townhouses in Elizabeth. It’s on a quiet street. It was built in 1950. But neighbors say it’s not like the other houses in their neighborhood — it’s an Airbnb that sometimes doubles as a party house. And nobody — not the owner, Airbnb or the city — seems to be able to stop the parties.
One night four years ago, next-door neighbor Steven Follis says, a renter threw a party with eight cars parked on the street. One of them parked in his driveway. The next morning, Follis found an empty Coke can sitting on the trunk of his Audi, so he decided to check his security camera.
When he watched the security video, he saw a man leaving the Airbnb party get into a crookedly parked car. The party-goer then gets out of the car and stands, oddly, at the back of Follis’s car for 15 seconds. If you look closely, you can see that he appears to be urinating on Follis’s back tire:
Two years later, Follis looked out at his window and saw a group had taken over the driveway of the same Airbnb duplex and was filming what looked like an amateur rap music video. He posted that one on Instagram.
Follis says he’s not troubled by the “young kiddos with their loud music and their beers” — “we live in a big city,” he says. He adds that he lived next to far noisier neighbors in his old apartment in South End. He’s more concerned that Airbnbs are taking away housing options in a city where housing prices are skyrocketing.
It’s a debate that is playing out in Charlotte neighborhoods and throughout the country — one that pits the rights of property owners versus neighbors who don’t want disruptions near their houses, along with worries that short-term rentals are contributing to a housing crunch.
Charlotte is taking no action to restrict rentals, citing a recent North Carolina appeals court decision that places some limitations on the ability of cities to regulate them — even as other N.C. cities this year are implementing restrictions in line with the court’s ruling. When Charlotte’s City Council votes tonight on a new development ordinance, it won’t include rules on Airbnbs that many neighborhoods say they want. Some residents are frustrated that more isn’t being done.
A Wilmington court case
The inaction on short-term rental rules is being blamed on a court case that originated in Wilmington. City leaders there passed an ordinance in January 2019 requiring short-term rental houses to be at least 400 feet from each other and capped the number of rentals at 2% of residential lots. To rent out their houses, owners had to register their rentals, with permits awarded through a lottery system.
When Wilmington residents David and Peggy Schroeder tried to register their short-term rental townhouse, they were denied because another rental property beat them to it with a lower lottery number. So they sued, saying Wilmington lacked the authority to require rental permits.
In April, the state appeals court ruled that under state law, local governments cannot require permits or registrations of rental properties. However, the ruling did allow local governments to implement restrictions on short-term rentals such as banning them in certain zoning districts or requiring adequate parking.
“Local governments still have authority to regulate short-term rentals through common development regulations and police power ordinances focused on public health and safety,” wrote Adam Lovelady, an associate professor of public law and government at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Government, in a blog post after the ruling came out.
What other N.C. cities are doing: Raleigh and Asheville are among N.C. cities that have sought to tighten up short-term rental regulations. After a nearly six-year debate in Raleigh, city council adopted an ordinance in February 2021 that required short-term rental owners to apply for a permit in specified limited-use zoning districts.
The Asheville Citizen-Times reported last August that the city council banned the renting of whole homes in most of Asheville in 2018, saying whole-dwelling rentals like Airbnbs exacerbate the affordable housing shortage and turn neighborhoods into de facto hotel districts.
In light of the court ruling, some N.C. cities are revising their rules:
Wilmington updated its ordinance this month, requiring owners to have at least one parking space for every bedroom and prohibiting whole-house rentals in certain zoning districts.
Asheville revised its regulations, too, leaving in place tough regulations that ban whole-home rentals through the zoning code in certain areas, but eliminating the requirement for permits to rent out parts of homes in other areas. “The conditions are going to be, essentially, exactly what the previous permitting requirements were,” minus having to get a permit, Asheville’s city attorney told the USA Today Network in May.
No action in Charlotte: Charlotte, though, has decided to hold off on new short-term rental rules for now. After the appeals court’s ruling in April, the Charlotte City Attorney’s office released a statement recommending that short-term rental regulations not be included in the draft of the Unified Development Ordinance, which had previously contained regulation proposals.
In the first draft of the 691-page UDO, short-term whole-dwelling regulations had called for short-term whole-dwelling rentals to be separated by a distance of at least
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400 feet from any other short-term whole-dwelling rental, requiring one off-street parking space on-site for each rented bedroom and banning parties, events, classes, weddings, receptions and other large gatherings.
But the city decided to strip those rules from the UDO, even though some of them might be allowed after the court ruling. The city said there might be legislation from Raleigh that would change regulation possibilities, though no such legislation surfaced in the most recent legislative session.
Mike Sullivan, chair of the CharlotteEAST economic development committee, said council members just seemed ready to get the UDO behind them. CharlotteEAST is a nonprofit advocacy board in east Charlotte. A week before the UDO proposal came out, Sullivan asked the city council how many Airbnbs were listed in Charlotte. They had no idea, he said. The city has no list of short-term rental houses and no list of problem addresses.
On June 1, CharlotteEAST sent a letter to the city council, which was prompted by neighbors’ complaints, asking for the elimination of the permitted use of whole-dwelling short-term rentals in residential areas, citing criminal activity, party houses and the insecurity of having a new neighbor every few days. The letter says that Airbnbs present “a widespread threat to the peace and stability of neighborhoods; it also exacerbates a deepening housing crisis.”
Greg Asciutto, chair of CharlotteEAST board of directors, said the city’s responses were vague and recommended he reach out to the state’s legislative delegation.
Asciutto said that 5% of homes in some Charlotte neighborhoods — like Echo Hills, near Monroe Road at Wendover Road south of uptown — are whole-house short-term rental units; Windsor Park, in east Charlotte, alone has 16 units.
‘Constant party zone’ in Wesley Heights: The second draft of the UDO, also called the public hearing draft, was released on June 3. Public comments closed on June 30, and a couple of comments were submitted on short-term rental regulations, like this one:
The Airbnb next door to me on Lela Avenue in Wesley Heights is a constant party zone. It’s a quiet neighborhood otherwise, but when it is rented out, large parties spill out onto the street, and there’s usually some type of drug activity. The music is so loud that I cannot sleep because our houses are very close together. Not to mention the smells I have to endure. There are other Airbnbs in the neighborhood and my neighbors report the same type of activity. Can you please increase penalties for Airbnb landlords who are not on the property and don’t see what’s happening? They shouldn’t have free rein and ruin everybody else’s peace.
And this one:
Our community is outraged, extremely disappointed and feels completely unrepresented by the gross act of removing the Short Term Rental Article from the UDO. We will understand which parties are responsible for the removal of the Article and inaction and vote accordingly during the next election cycle. Please consider making the Short Term Rental problem a priority to address and stop caving in to the LOUD minority, their lawyers and lobbyists.
Will self-regulation solve the problems?
On June 28, Airbnb codified its global ban on parties at its listings, which was originally left up to individual hosts when the platform was first launched almost 15 years ago. Last week, Airbnb announced what it calls “anti-party technology” designed to “help identify potentially high-risk reservations and prevent those users from taking advantage of our platform.” The system would look at a renter’s review history, length of time the guest has been on Airbnb, length of the trip, distance to the listing and weekend vs. weekday.
Airbnb has been changing its party policy over the past few years. In 2019, it prohibited open-invite parties and what Airbnb called “chronic party houses” following a series of violent incidents at parties in Airbnbs.
In August 2020, Airbnb enforced a temporary ban on parties for health concerns during the Covid pandemic and reported a 44% year-over-year drop in the rate of party reports. Airbnb also partnered with Vrbo to share information on repeat “party house” offenders in the U.S. The company said it suspended more than 6,600 guests from Airbnb in 2021 for attempting to violate the party ban.
However, Airbnb has 5.6 million active listings worldwide, so the company can’t catch them all. Just a few months ago, in April, two men were killed and eight other people were wounded in a shooting at a party held in a Pittsburgh Airbnb, according to the New York Times.
Rabbu, a Charlotte-based short-term rental investment and management company, works with 176 short-term rentals across the country. In addition to Airbnb’s regulations, Katie Cotter, the vice president of operations, said Rabbu has its own set, including imposing two-night minimum stays, declining bookings that mention parties, disallowing bookings in Charlotte by Charlotte residents and installing noise monitors.
Cotter said Rabbu’s regulations have been working, and they haven’t had to call the police yet.
Calling police, code enforcement not working
Police reports on three Airbnb addresses on East 7th and East 5th streets in Elizabeth show that in the last five years, neighbors have repeatedly called 911 about loud noises, possible underage drinking, drug use and general “disturbing the peace” coming from the properties.
On a Saturday night last December, one police report says, someone called the police around 11 p.m. about a 7th Street Airbnb, claiming the subject had only rented the property for two people but was hosting a party. When the complainant approached the renter to address the problem, the renter “threatened to burn the place,” according to the police report. The renter was not on the scene when the police arrived. There were at least five other calls for police to the same address in the last five years.
Charlotte’s Code Enforcement Division said in an email that it has not responded to these locations for any of these issues. Asked for a list of short-term rental properties that have been the subject of complaints or investigations by code enforcement, a spokeswoman said the division “does not track this data.”
While Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police respond to calls made on Airbnb guests, it’s difficult to prevent future incidents when renters change on a daily basis.
Follis, the next-door neighbor who captured videos of the party house next door, knows the Airbnb host and has his contact information for times when guests are too rowdy or violate any other rules, like smoking on the property. The Ledger reached out to the host through the Airbnb site but did not receive a response.
Cars converge at the small Airbnb duplex next to Follis’ house in Elizabeth in February 2019. (Photo courtesy of Steven Follis.)
‘A zoo’ on nearby street: The house next to Follis isn’t the only one in Elizabeth with rowdy guests. There’s one on Crescent Avenue that was recently listed on Airbnb. It welcomed its first guests at the end of June. One of its neighbors, who asked to remain anonymous, called the scene “a zoo.”
Loud parties went all through Friday and Saturday night, forcing neighbors to call the police to file a noise complaint, the neighbor said. By the time the police finally responded to the call, the Airbnb guests had already packed up and left.
The neighbor said that the Airbnb, which was previously a long-term rental owned by the same person, is no longer listed on Airbnb.
Another Elizabeth resident, who also asked to remain anonymous, told us about a different Airbnb on 5th Street with similar issues: loud guests, crowded driveways and the smell of marijuana wafting its way onto the street. By the time neighbors decided to call the police, the Airbnb guests had left.
With Airbnb guests changing on a weekly — even daily — basis, the Elizabeth resident said it disrupts the neighborhood and security in knowing who their neighbors are, leaving them to ask: “Why are we allowing hotels in residential areas?”
It seems that short-term rental regulations won’t be adopted any time soon, though. Sam Spencer, the former chair of the planning commission and current member, said he thinks the issue of regulating short-term rentals will resurface in the future.
“I think we'll have a discussion of it again, and it will be separate from the UDO,” Spencer said.
“There’s an estimated 3,500 Airbnb units in Charlotte,” Spencer added. “That’s 3,500 units that aren't available for people who are in search of housing, and so that's more people in the market who are competing for single-family homes.”
Ledger staff writer Lindsey Banks covers neighborhoods in Mecklenburg County. What’s happening in your neighborhood? Drop her an email.
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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Staff writer: Lindsey Banks; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Contributing photographer/videographer: Kevin Young, The 5 and 2 Project