Northern suburbs’ Airbnb data show challenges of short-term rental regulation
By John Ruch
If you were thinking about spending a weekend in Dunwoody last month — maybe a Perimeter Mall shopping spree or a quick MARTA ride to a downtown event — you would have had 94 properties to choose from on Airbnb.
And all of them were illegal under a City of Dunwoody ordinance that bans short-term home rentals under threat of a $1,000 fine and/or up to six months in a different sort of temporary accommodation.
As the City of Atlanta prepares to enforce its new short-term rental regulations, the experiences of some of those north metro suburbs who started earlier show some of the challenges. Those include Sandy Springs, whose similar system – possibly using the same outside vendor to monitor illegal listings – has a list of properties in violation that dwarfs those legally licensed.
On June 12, SaportaReport took a snapshot of metro Atlanta weekend-trip listing data from Airbnb, the market leader in short-term home rentals. As we previously reported, that snapshot found more than 4,000 listings within Atlanta, raising questions about impacts on housing affordability and the prevalence in apartment and condo complexes that have received less policy attention than single-family neighborhoods.
The numbers were far lower in Atlanta’s immediate northern neighbors, but big enough to have local impacts as well. Besides Dunwoody’s 94 listings, Sandy Springs had 164, and there were 140 in Brookhaven, where the father of Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia Jr. sat on the City Council when the City legalized short-term rentals in 2019. Gebbia Sr. recused himself from short-term rental votes.
Focused on quality-of-life issues with loud parties and such, Dunwoody has one of the metro area’s strictest short-term rental restrictions – on paper, anyhow. Short-term home rentals of less than 30 days are banned outright.
But Dunwoody has no registration or monitoring system. The City enforces violations based solely on complaints from the public, and the immediate goal is to have the property listing changed to a stay of at least 30 days. When there’s a complaint Code Enforcement inspectors look at the property listing to see how long it is, and talk to the property owner.
In the past 12 months, there have been only two such complaints, both submitted by residents.
“Citations were not issued in both cases, only a notice of violations for both,” said a written statement from Dunwoody’s Community Development department. “In both cases, the owner of the property reduced the ads to 30 days or more.”
All the same, Dunwoody had those 94 listings, at least 17 of which were “Superhosts,” company jargon for those who rent frequently and receive many good reviews. What does the City think about having that many properties listed despite the prohibition and what it might mean for quality of life in the neighborhoods?
“We need people to report them to code enforcement,” the department replied.
Bigger cities with bigger concerns — often including housing supply and affordability — seek more proactive ways of dealing with short-term rentals. Atlanta’s system, which is in place but has enforcement delayed to September, requires hosts to register with the City and get a permit. A previously undiscussed aspect is that the City is hiring an outside company to monitor various listings websites for unregistered properties. The Department of City Planning says it is in the procurement phase of a contract for that service and initially indicated it had selected Granicus Host Compliance before correcting to say that no decision has been made.
Host Compliance is a popular short-term rental monitoring service that the Colorado-based government software company Granicus bought in 2019. The service is able to seek illegal listings and manage violation notices. It has positioned itself as an authority on regulations, even issuing white papers.
“The biggest compliance challenge many communities face is gaining visibility into the short-term rental market,” Granicus Host Compliance said in a written statement. “Manually reviewing dozens of short-term rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO can be incredibly tedious and time-consuming. This is a big reason why local governments are drawn towards Granicus Host Compliance. It automates these manual processes and saves government workers a significant amount of time.”
When Sandy Springs launched its short-term rental registration system, it contracted with Host Compliance for more than $21,000 a year. In early 2020, a little over a year after enforcement of the new system began, the City had 54 properties legally registered and had issued warnings or citations to nearly 130 properties, as Reporter Newspapers reported at the time.
Today, the citations are down, but so are legally registered properties. According to a City spokesperson, there are currently 15 registered properties. Meanwhile, in the past 12 months, the City has issued warnings or citations to the owners of 74 properties. Violation data obtained by SaportaReport through an open records request for April through June of this year showed 65 properties were reviewed for lack of a license or other short-term rental code violations, with 37 of those still in active investigation.
And again, that all compares with the 164 listings SaportaReport found just on Airbnb.
Brookhaven, which today has a similar registration system, was unable to immediately provide its listings and complaint data.
Much short-term rental policymaking focuses on impacts in single-family neighborhoods of detached houses. But SaportaReport’s snapshot found many of Atlanta’s listings clustered in apartment and condo complexes. The suburban cities have a similar pattern. Many of Dunwoody’s listings are concentrated in Perimeter Center, an area whose housing is virtually all apartments and condos. About 63 percent of Sandy Springs’ recent short-term rental violation complaints were for units in apartment complexes.
That can highlight other short-term rental concerns, such as housing affordability for renters. That issue has been a concern for Sandy Springs, which several years ago launched pilot programs in inclusionary zoning in two apartment complexes, one of which — The Cliftwood — recently had a unit under investigation as an illegal short-term rental.
Granicus Host Compliance suggests that short-term rentals will keep growing in a booming Atlanta market and gave some numbers – though it could not immediately clarify if they were just for the city or the entire metro.
“Since 2018, the short-term rental market has doubled in Atlanta,” the company said. “Granicus Host Compliance data shows over 11,000 listings, which represent nearly 9,000 unique short-term rental properties. Ninety-two percent of these short-term rentals are entire property rentals, meaning guests have access to the entire home/unit and the owner is not on-site.”
And whoever ends up monitoring Atlanta’s new system, Granicus is clearly aware of it. “Atlanta’s ordinance is fairly comprehensive and includes many industry best practices,” the company said.