“Cozy room in suburbia!” reads a listing on Airbnb.com, offering travelers a bedroom on a quiet Dunwoody street for $68 a night.
The room may be illegal as well as cozy, according to the city of Dunwoody, whose zoning bans lodging in residential areas. It’s among dozens of short-term online housing rentals available along the northern Perimeter, ranging from entire Buckhead mansions to spare bedrooms on Sandy Springs’ cul-de-sacs, that often operate in legal gray areas. City codes vary, and such rentals may evade hotel taxes or flout apartment leases and condo association rules.
But that Dunwoody room, like virtually all local listings, gets glowing reviews from its guests. If the private owner or main tenant rents them quietly to keep guests and neighbors happy, it’s unlikely there will be enforcement or even any short-term rental regulations at all. That’s currently the case in Brookhaven and Sandy Springs, city officials say.
“If we had [complaints], it would have been addressed long before,” said city of Sandy Springs spokeswoman Sharon Kraun. But, she added, the City Council is likely to discuss possible regulation of short-term rentals soon.
Short-term rental services have become a booming—and controversial—business, allowing homeowners and apartment renters to make extra cash by arranging online room rentals. The current top dog is San Francisco-based Airbnb, which boasts millions of rental listings in nearly every country in the world. The service includes a listing, a payment service and a rating system.
Short-term rentals have been especially controversial in big cities, where they can act as significant competition with hotels while avoiding the same taxes and regulations. There are also concerns that short-term rentals inflate local housing markets, making it harder for long-term residents to afford housing. In 2014, the tourist-heavy city of Savannah, Ga., cracked down on short-term rentals as zoning violations.
Little attention has been drawn to short-term rentals in suburbs and outlying urban neighborhoods, where there likely aren’t such large-scale market impacts and homeowners can often rent with more privacy. But other concerns about short-term rentals are still possible, such as absentee owners, misbehaving guests or violations of condo rules.
‘Party House in Buckhead’
One recent Airbnb listing advertised a $349-a-night “Party House in Buckhead for Events!” on residential Timm Valley Road. “Kegs cost extra…Perfect for events under 40-50 people,” the listing says. The listing dates to 2011, indicating it has operated without serious complaints.
And the listing for an entire four-bedroom house for rent off Lake Forrest Drive in Sandy Springs says no parties or events are allowed. “I’m sorry about this, I’ve done it before and it’s caused too many problems…,” the host explained in the listing.
Of several local short-term rental hosts contacted for interviews, only one agreed to speak, and only briefly and without publication of his name. The host rents a Perimeter Center condo on three different online services, including Airbnb, and mostly attracts business travelers.
“Our condo doesn’t really allow renters,” the host admitted. “I screen [short-term renters] really hard. I tell them, don’t send mail there.”
Airbnb did not respond to questions. But according to press reports, it has beefed up its safety and accountability policies in recent years. Its website features basic city of Atlanta housing regulation information. And according to news reports, Airbnb will soon introduce a new service allowing residents at neighboring properties to file complaints about problem guests directly with the company.
Recent checks of Airbnb and Corporate Housing By Owner, a site focused on monthly, business-oriented rentals, showed plenty of local residents playing host. For the March 18 weekend, Airbnb showed about 25 rentals available in Buckhead; about 22 in Brookhaven; 16 in Dunwoody; and about 30 in Sandy Springs. On the luxury end, $350 a night scored an entire Tudor-style mansion with a saltwater swimming pool, on Buckhead’s Knollwood Drive. Bargain travelers could get a particularly safe room—“I literally live next to the police station!” the listing read—on Sandy Springs’ Spring Creek Lane.
Many reviews show guests enthusiastic about local hosts and neighborhoods. “This neighborhood is one of the BEST you will find in Atlanta. It’s safe and in a beautiful historic area,” wrote a guest of a suite for rent on Mabry Road in Brookhaven.
Some listings on both sites have hosts who live in other homes or even other cities and states. One CHBO condo listing on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road says the host moved out in 2010. “I have been renting to numerous guests and corporations for over 5 years,” the listing reads.
Airbnb listings include some prominent local condo and apartment towers, including in Dunwoody’s Manhattan condos and Sandy Springs’ Park Towers/M789 condos/apartments complex.
“If we knew about it, we probably wouldn’t allow it,” said Henry Monje, a leasing consultant at the M789 apartments. But, he said, there’s no easy way to tell apartment tenants’ paying guests from non-paying ones.
To regulate or not to regulate
Nationwide, the hotel industry is pushing for uniform regulation of short-term rentals, saying hosts should follow similar regulations and pay the same taxes and fees. In Georgia, a committee in the state House of Representatives last winter recommended against statewide regulation.
“I still believe that statewide regulation makes the most sense to provide continuity across the state,” said Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association.
The rules, or lack thereof, governing short-term rentals vary across local municipalities. The city of Atlanta’s zoning prohibits short-term rentals of single-family and two-family houses in residential districts, city spokeswoman Jewanna Gaither said. Dunwoody has similar restrictions, according to city spokesman Bob Mullen.
In Brookhaven, where Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia’s father happens to be a member of City Council, “there is currently nothing in our ordinance that addresses them, and they wouldn’t fall under the hotel definition,” said city spokeswoman Ann Marie Quill. “When the business community comes up with a new model, such as Uber or growlers, it takes a little time for municipalities to adapt.”