The Raleigh residents offering their homes for rent on the website Airbnb seem like a friendly enough bunch, from the retirees in Boylan Heights to the chic scuba-diving couple downtown.
Quite a few of the 150 or so rentals on offer, however, may be breaking Raleigh ordinances – and the city is about to remind two Airbnb users of that fact.
The city government on Monday plans to issue a zoning violation notice to Gregg and Jo Ann Stebben, who have been renting a section of their Five Points home for $80 a night. The city is acting on an anonymous complaint.
“I’ve been saying I’m the test case,” said Stebben, a journalist and radio host for Men’s Health.
Raleigh’s rules say that overnight rentals aren’t allowed in most of the city’s residential zoning districts, according to administrator Travis Crane.
“In a zoning context ... it’s similar to a bed and breakfast,” Crane said. That category comes with special requirements, such as minimum square footage for rented rooms.
“Our zoning code obviously doesn’t include a use category called Airbnb,” he said. “We’re not that progressive.”
City staff normally turn a blind eye to the publicly accessible rental listings, instead waiting for complaints. The Stebbens, apparently, were the first amateur innkeepers to draw someone’s ire.
Gregg Stebben said they knew their home would be good for guests as soon as they bought it last year. The house is walking distance to the movie theater and eateries in Five Points, and the house has a bedroom with a separate entrance.
Before listing with Airbnb, Gregg Stebben said, he asked city officials if the rental was legal. The answer: It’s unclear, but it wouldn’t be a problem unless someone complained.
The couple posted their property early in September, advertising the addition as “The Raleigh Room.” The website allows anyone to advertise their home, then takes service fees of 9 to 15 percent.
“When we finally listed it, I thought, ‘We’ll get a couple people a month,’” Gregg Stebben said.
Instead, guests came every weekend for two months straight.
The Stebbens hosted a musician on the weekend of the Hopscotch music festival, a couple making a romantic rendezvous, and guests for weddings. The hosts even installed a special keypad so the renters could let themselves in.
Someone noticed all the new faces in the neighborhood. City staff received an anonymous complaint about the house on Oct. 24.
“It amazes me that anyone knew to complain in my neighborhood,” Gregg Stebben said. “The last few guests, I haven't even seen them, and I work at home.”
Nevertheless, rules being rules, a zoning inspector came to the house within days. The city is set to issue an official notice of violation as early as Monday, Crane said.
The city will ask the Stebbens to stop renting the room out, but likely won’t assess fines unless the violation continues, he said.
The homeowners may appeal to the Board of Adjustment. They also will have the support of some City Council members.
“In my opinion, this really needs to be part of a larger policy-based discussion, as opposed to going and just issuing a violation,” said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, who said she planned to call the city manager to see whether a violation notice could be averted.
Councilman Bonner Gaylord said he wanted to see the rentals allowed.
“If there's questionable legal authority right now then we need to clarify that policy,” Gaylord said.
For a model, Raleigh might look to Portland, Ore., where Airbnb successfully lobbied for the creation of a short-term rental permit program, allowing the city to tax Airbnb transactions.
Stebben, meanwhile, will keep on renting at least until he sees the violation notice – and, as a self-described “tech guy,” he’s glad to be in the middle of things.
“This may sound weird, but I am thrilled and honored that, if Raleigh is going to deal with this, I’ll be in this position,” he said.