How to regulate Airbnb rentals? Kansas City wrangles complexities

An Airbnb offering in a Hyde Park house, one of hundreds of short-term rental units in Kansas City that would be subject to proposed regulations.
An Airbnb offering in a Hyde Park house, one of hundreds of short-term rental units in Kansas City that would be subject to proposed regulations. tljungblad@kcstar.com

It’s late night in an apartment building in the Kansas City Crossroads. There’s a loud party in one of the units. The building’s back door is propped open by someone who’s collecting a cover charge from a line of people waiting to get in.

An apartment tenant, angry at the noise, finds out that the party host has rented a unit for a one-night stay. The tenant doesn’t know who holds the unit’s long-term lease. He has no idea what to do except call the police.

Such is the extreme, the worst case that happens without city regulation of short-term rentals through platforms such as Airbnb and HomeAway. Many other such rentals are quiet, seamless daily transactions made through the vibrant and growing share economy. Fans, both hosts and renters, are legion.

But, whether routine or riotous, short-term rentals are under City Hall’s microscope.

Kansas City Plan Commissioners on Tuesday again are to be asked to swim across a gulf that separates authors of a proposed city ordinance to regulate short-term rentals and Airbnb hosts unhappy with the proposal.

In June, when commissioners heard hours of testimony pro and con, some of them admitted they didn’t understand the industry or hadn’t realized how much this part of the shared economy has grown in the city. Decisions were tabled for a repeat meeting.

Now, after time for commissioners to bone up on Airbnb, HomeAway and other short-term rental platforms — and more public meetings for the city planning staff and Airbnb hosts to iron out some differences — the ordinance is back on the agenda.

Commission approval is the first step needed before the city’s initial attempt to regulate short-term residential rentals goes to the City Council for a thumbs up or down.

“We’ve taken some of their suggestions and not others,” said Diane Binckley, City Hall’s development manager who’s led the ordinance planning. “We’ll highlight the comments we’ve received, pro and con, to the commission.”

Some Airbnb hosts critical of the city’s proposed regulations have coalesced as the Mitchell Citizens Group. They suggest an alternate ordinance drafted by Steve Mitchell, a Kansas City lawyer who, with his wife, has had Airbnb renters in his carriage house for many years.

“This isn’t easy stuff, and every city is different,” Mitchell acknowledged. “But I’ve looked at many cities’ ordinances and attended all the public meetings, and I think we can come up with a better plan.

“I think the City Plan Commission is getting more enlightened, and I have great faith in our City Council wanting Kansas City to be modern, to have short-term rentals, to be progressive.”

Other Airbnb and HomeAway hosts are angry that the city’s proposal, for zoning reasons, would shut them out of participating in short-term rentals. The city’s plan generally would prohibit Airbnb or HomeAway rentals outside of commercially zoned or designated historic neighborhoods.

“I’ve invested in properties around the new Cerner campus in south Kansas City, and they’re being used well by Cerner people,” said Brandon Ryan. “To have attractive Airbnb properties I’m helping keep the neighborhood up. To shut me out would almost be like mortgage redlining.”

Similarly, Ted McKinzie, an Airbnb host with a house near the Truman Sports Complex, decried the “arbitrariness of saying it’s OK in one neighborhood but not another.”

Non-hosts have complaints, too — about different strangers every night getting passcodes to their supposedly secure apartment buildings, about too many cars parking on their streets, and about unfair competition to the hotel and motel industry which pays guest taxes to the city, unlike Airbnb hosts.

Around the country, protracted ordinance battles have occurred when cities have tried to get a handle on regulating short-term residential rental units. The first hurdle is merely to define what kind of rental spaces to regulate.

Airbnb guests range from people who stay for a night in someone’s spare bedroom while passing through town to bridal parties renting for weekends to visiting business or academic people who rent for months. Ordinances attempt to say how many people can use short-term rentals at once and how long they can stay.

About 500 Airbnb offerings are listed for the Kansas City area. Some are in owner-occupied properties, others aren’t. The sheer diversity of properties makes any regulatory attempt a deep dive into nuances.

Mitchell’s plan, for example, would allow up to four units in a multi-tenant apartment building or condominium to be used for short-term rentals, provided they’re operated by the same host or owner who gives notice to all tenants in the building.

The city would cap such rental units in multi-family buildings at three and require the owners/hosts to occupy them as well as give notice to neighbors.

Even the city’s stricter proposal riles apartment or condo dwellers who want to preserve the security of their building entry passcodes and help deter unwanted noise from short-term renters.

Beyond dozens of details about multi-tenant buildings, there are rules and disagreements about use of single-family properties. And then there are the questions of host registration, permits and fees, about how to handle complaints, about how to penalize hosts for violations.

Jim Weitzel, who’s on the board of the Homeowners Association of Kansas City, said he believes some regulations are warranted.

“We’ve had incidents of non-owner-occupied homes rented out for weekends with loud parties,” Weitzel said at a recent public meeting to discuss the proposed ordinance. “I think the draft ordinance addresses some of the concerns. There should be fines if the rules aren’t followed, and someone should be taken to court for noncompliance.”

Kate Garman, who served as Kansas City’s innovation officer until she moved to Seattle last month, said the ordinance necessarily will be complex.

“It has to be a balance of the city’s proactive effort, Airbnb hosts’ response and neighborhood concerns,” Garman said at the last public meeting. “And it has to happen. The new Pickwick already has six Airbnb units that we know about. One Light has a lot of Airbnb rentals. Right now, people don’t know who’s accountable, who should be notified, where to send complaints for violations.”

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford