End of the Wild West In Denver's Short Term Rental Market?

Cheeseman Park Winter Morning:  Copyright David C. Uhlig 2016

Tonight city council votes on two ordinances legalizing (and regulating) strs in primary residences.

     Did you know that operating a private home as an Air BNB, VRBO or as a similar short-term rental property, is currently illegal in the City of Denver? Denver’s zoning code specifies the types of uses that are allowed as accessory to residential use and in almost all cases, short term rentals of 30 days or less (“STRs”) aren’t listed.  The city’s position is that currently, these short term rentals are not allowed under most residential zone districts but the city also does not enforce the prohibition.  According to an April 7, 2016 letter to the city from the Denver Short Term Rental Alliance, to date the city has only received six (6) complaints about STRs.     One exception is that in mixed use commercial zone districts, an STR may be allowed as a “lodging accommodation” if the owner obtains a zoning permit and complies with relevant parking and building ordinances.   

     Tonight the Denver City Council is scheduled to vote on two bills: one would revise Denver’s zoning code (CB16-0261) to permit short term rentals in an owner’s primary residence; and the other, a companion bill (CB16-0262) would enact a licensing and regulatory framework for short term rentals in primary residences.  As drafted, the zoning code amendment is expressly conditional upon passage of the companion bill.  As drafted, the proposed zoning code amendment legalizes STRs in primary residences.  By preventing owners from using investment properties and vacation homes as STRs, Denver’s zoning ordinance limits owners to a single STR.  The intent to prevent investors and businesses from operating STR portfolios or STR investment properties in residential neighborhoods underlies the proposed ordinances which expressly forbid STRs operated by entities such as corporations or LLCs, joint ventures or associations.  While owners may be absent during the short term occupancy, as drafted the proposed zoning amendment expressly requires that owners live in the residence.  The companion bill would delegate authority to the Denver Department of Excise and Licensing to license and regulate STRs.  In addition to numerous other requirements, under the proposed licensing ordinance STR owners will be required to apply for a license, register with Denver Excise and Licensing and obtain a lodging tax identification number.  Lodging taxes on STRs would be the same as for a hotel room (10.75%).  Additionally, if the bills are passed, STR owners will be required to maintain fire, hazard and liability insurance at levels set by Denver Excise and Licensing, maintain a minimum level of life safety systems in a residence used as an STR, and include the STR license number in all advertisements.  The fee for the STR license will be $25.00 per year and fines for advertising without a license and/or operating without a license will be up to $999.00 per incident.

some groups think the primary residence requirement is anti small business.

     In the two-year run up to the vote, council members and staff received varying input from numerous parties running the gamut from individual homeowners and neighborhood associations to property investors and short term rental industry groups.  Much of the feedback received by the city characterizes the primary residence requirement as anti-small business and complains about the increased regulation of private property, increased taxes and favoritism toward the hotel industry.  The Denver Short Term Rental Alliance’s letter states that the primary residency requirement will effectively lock VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) out of Denver and the city will be deprived of a significant tax revenue stream.  Proponents of the primary residence requirement feel it is appropriate in that it limits STRs to small businesses that generate supplementary income for homeowners and cite concerns about investors buying up entire blocks or apartment buildings and operating them as STRs in otherwise primarily residential neighborhoods.  In general, they  feel such operations would pose a risk to public health and safety and detract from the quality and vibe of Denver neighborhoods; the obvious concern being strange cars and stranger people steadily coming and going.

     A seemingly simple issue on its face, legalizing STRs in Denver has broader implications.  If the council votes in favor of these bills tonight, individual owners renting out a room or garage apartment on a short term basis, as a means of earning supplementary income will be permitted to continue doing so and now, legally, although now subject to applications, annual reporting and taxation.  Owners operating investment properties as true STR businesses, or desiring to do so, have been kicked out of the pool in the interest of protecting neighbors who own or who are traditional renters. The STR game in Denver may be more exclusive and predictable by the end of the day; and also more expensive to play.  One cannot help thinking that many STR owners will miss the days of the wild west.