Bien-Wilner: Real state of short term rentals in Arizona

Posted 5/6/21

The short-term rental platforms are working hard to spin their recent loss. They would have you believe that they offered legislation to “fix” the STR rental problems that they created in our towns and throughout the state, only to have it rejected without reason.

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Bien-Wilner: Real state of short term rentals in Arizona

Photo by Arianna Grainey
Photo by Arianna Grainey
Arianna Grainey

The short-term rental platforms are working hard to spin their recent loss. They would have you believe that they offered legislation to “fix” the STR rental problems that they created in our towns and throughout the state, only to have it rejected without reason.

That’s just not so.

Airbnb and its allies came into this unwillingly. Their “industry bill,” Senate Bill 1379, emerged only after we shook the industry off its self-serving mantra that the current state law was perfect and required no change. Their backpedaling was a victory in itself, spurred by our work, the alliances we have built and positive resident action.

They could have made a fair deal after this change — like they have in other states where they do business — and solved a growing problem that harms too many homeowners across Arizona. But they balked, and the industry’s actions directly lead to being called out at the state legislature and failed badly in the vote — 43-17.   

A legion of residents, mayors and council members, and state senators and representatives had workable and constructive proposals to reign in the destructive aspects of short-term rental activities in Arizona. As so many in our town are aware, Arizona’s current state law on STRs, enacted in 2016, removed all traditional norms and protections — allowing homes to be converted into unstaffed motels. Unfortunately, looking to short-term economic gain at the expense of neighborhoods, the STR industry, led by Airbnb, continues to buck any attempt to reign in the harms it is causing in neighborhoods. These ongoing harms are known and well-documented, including as expressed by more than 30 Arizona mayors in late-2020, and by respected economic analysts Elliot D. Pollack & Co.

This legislative session there were sensible and fair compromise positions offered to the STR industry — and to the sponsors of Senate Bill 1379 — to address the problems the industry has created. The willingness of cities and towns to reach a win/win compromise hasn’t been the problem.

Put bluntly, the powerful, special-interest STR industry — led by Silicon Valley-based Airbnb and other power brokers — continued to show their arrogance. Their industry thrives in Arizona by converting our neighborhoods into commercial marketplaces in disregard of the zoning restrictions that so many of us relied upon for peace, quiet and safety when we bought our homes. 

They thought they were going to get yet another industry-crafted bill passed without collaborating with those most impacted by their business activities. They assumed they could bully their way to an easy victory at the state Capitol, and therefore end the discussion and effectively “lock down” the law in their favor for the foreseeable future.

However, they failed to win the support of either Republicans or Democrats at the state legislature. Here is what some key legislators had to say about the STR industry’s actions in Arizona.

Rep. Butler (D): “This bill falls far short of really doing anything meaningful.”

Rep. Kavanagh (R): “This is a band-aid. We need to send a message to the industry that we want reasonable concessions to communities and neighbors who have problems.”

Rep. Lieberman (D): “The same industry that originally created this problem are behind this (SB 1379). There was no effort made to meet halfway.”

We are grateful to the wisdom of these and other leaders who have fought for real and durable reform. As they have noted, SB 1379 was toothless and reactive by the industry’s design — it was like your doctor telling you to skip the high blood pressure pills until you’ve already had a heart attack.

We need to be proactive — let towns and cities put in place land-use plans through tried and tested tools like the residential zoning ordinances that were the bedrock of our town from 1961 until disrupted by this terrible state law designed to prop up Airbnb and their cohorts. It is clear that state law authorizing different groups daily of 30, 40 or more people to occupy one single-family home is not just disruptive to neighborhoods, it is irresponsible and dangerous.

STRs are here to stay in one form or another. As I and other leaders have said many times, there needs to be constructive discussion between STR platforms and in communities in Arizona on how they can minimize negative impacts. We recognize there is a balancing act between the perceived property rights of a few STR owners and the property rights of the majority. The STR “platforms” like Airbnb and VRBO can address the items in SB 1379, and many other issues, without legislation simply by acting as good corporate citizens. Airbnb and VRBO are tech-based companies, after all, with market valuations exceeding $130 billion.

While we continue the work on the legislative front, I will be leading the way locally as the town redoubles its STR regulation and enforcement efforts with the limited tools it is currently permitted to use — expect to hear squealing from the STR industry, even though they repeatedly claim to welcome sensible regulation.

We will not dwell on the STR industry’s legislative failure, but instead look at this as a new chapter and a continuing opportunity to solve a major problem that we did not create but need to address — and I continue to strongly encourage and welcome the STR industry’s good faith participation to do this. I am thankful to everyone who is playing a part to solve this problem, and please feel free to contact me if you’d like to join in our ongoing efforts — jbienwillner@paradisevalleyaz.gov or 480-348-3660.

Editor’s Note: Jerry Bien-Wilner is Town of Paradise Valley mayor.