Asheville fire marshals were standing by as more than 140 residents, nonprofit representatives, business owners and other stakeholders filed into A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium on Jan. 22 to make their voices heard on proposed regulations for short-term rentals in Buncombe County.
The City of Asheville implemented restrictions on short-term rentals in 2015, which allowed residents to rent up to two rooms on a short-term basis while living in the same house. Simultaneously, the city banned whole-house rentals of less than 30 days in residential areas, with exceptions for operators renting prior to the ordinance’s adoption or who received conditional zoning approval. Asheville City Council further tightened the rules in 2018, outlawing new whole-house STRs in most commercial districts. Violators face a $500-per-day fine.
Currently, STR operators in Buncombe County must apply for a one-time permit but otherwise face few restrictions. County STR operators have the option to rent out entire homes and are not required to live on the property or even within the state.
The proposed regulations, which were first introduced in December as part of the Buncombe 2043 Comprehensive Plan, would ban future short-term rentals, both whole-house and rentals within the owner’s primary residence, in the unincorporated parts of Buncombe County unless they were located within commercial zones or in an open-use district. In an open-use district, the proposal would allow grouped complexes of STRs as a special-use permit. The regulations would also change the definition of short-term rental to allow only single-family detached units to be rented short term and prohibit short-term rentals in mobile home parks, among other changes.
Existing short-term rentals would not be affected by the changes but would require a permit issued by the county. Permits would not be transferable upon the sale of a home.
According to a county memorandum, the proposed changes were designed to “affect low and middle-income renters, homebuyers and local workers by seeking to make more housing stock available for long-term rentals and owner-occupied housing.” The memorandum goes on to say that a consulting firm hired by the county identified 5,268 STRs in Buncombe as of 2022, representing roughly 4.5% of the county’s housing stock.
The Jan. 22 Buncombe County Planning Board meeting was billed as a “listening session” for residents impacted by the proposed changes, after the Dec. 18 meeting was overflowing with those wanting to provide public comment on the issue.
‘I felt so powerless’
Over three hours, 57 people spoke, with around a dozen others ceding their time to allow for longer comments. The comments ranged from personal experiences depicting how short-term rentals negatively affect neighborhoods and contribute to Asheville’s housing crisis, to others who shared how income from short-term rentals allowed operators to build generational wealth or stay in their homes when experiencing economic hardships.
More than a dozen people representing the Emma community — who made their comments in Spanish with assistance from a translator — spoke out in favor of the proposed regulations, saying that investors were purchasing mobile home parks and other low-income housing that their community relies on to convert into short-term rentals.
Resident Liliana Ramirez said that she and her three children were forced to move after her mobile home was demolished to build a new house that was then used as short-term rental.
“They [told] us that we had to get out and that they would give us $1,000 for us to leave,” said Ramirez. “They didn’t care that we were people that struggled daily to survive. I ended up on the streets because I couldn’t find anywhere to rent. This is one of the saddest experiences I have ever been through with my children. And I felt so powerless to see that businesspeople think about making more money without thinking about people like us who don’t have the same resources.”
Other speakers, including Stephanie Biziewski, explained how several short-term rentals had disrupted their neighborhood and absent hosts left them with nowhere to turn for help.
“Rowdy, intoxicated visitors have violated their noise agreement well over 30 times, usually waking me up from a deep sleep at 1 or 2 in the morning with shouting, loud music, wild partying,” said Biziewski. “At least 10 of those times were serious enough that the police needed to intervene after calling the property manager proved useless.”
Questions and trade-offs
Those who opposed the regulations questioned the assertion that short-term rentals are a major contributor to Asheville’s affordable housing shortage, noting that the City of Asheville, where STRs have been regulated for nearly a decade, is still experiencing a shortage of affordable housing and increased home prices.
“One of the issues I have with the proposal is a lack of clarity on numbers and defined terms. I believe that this is causing a lot of confusion on this topic, and that confusion is contributing to the idea that we either get STRs or affordable housing,” said Joshua Houde, who works in civil engineering. “I think that that claim has not been substantiated in this proposal, but for some reason that is being perpetuated back. Many, if not all of us, are in favor of having affordable homes in our area. But I believe that the vagueness of this proposal is the main barrier to an honest conversation on this issue.”
Other speakers shared how income from their short-term rental helped them afford their homes after experiencing a life-changing medical diagnosis or other economic hardship. Some commenters explained that regulations would only hurt Asheville residents and small-business owners rather than out-of-state investors or corporate-run STRs, and were skeptical of how regulations would be enforced, noting that the City of Asheville struggles to rein in its illegal rentals.
A majority of speakers who said they operated short-term rentals said that while they disagreed with the majority of the proposed restrictions, they were in favor of some type of regulations — such as prohibiting STRs in mobile home parks, increasing the cost or frequency of permit fees and creating a “good neighbor” policy that would help neighbors manage noise and other complaints and hold problematic operators accountable.
“Satisfying reasonable regulatory requirements is a perfectly acceptable trade-off for being able to operate a short-term rental without the threat of having that right taken away,” said Matthew Allen, director of government affairs at the Land of the Sky Association of Realtors. “There’s lots of things that we can do that don’t involve banning someone’s private property rights.”
Members of the Buncombe County Planning Board emphasized that the listening session was one of several steps that they planned to take before making a recommendation to the county Board of Commissioners, which is the governing body that will ultimately decide what changes, if any, to make to the county’s law. The board plans to meet twice in February and is expected to schedule a public hearing in March, though no dates have been specified.