Letter to the Editor: Revisiting short-term rentals in St. George

Stock image | Photo by Roberthyrons/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

OPINION — Writs of Assistance were Colonial period edicts utilized by Redcoats to search colonists’ property at any moment and for any reason. Sir Edward Coke helped lay the moral foundation countering draconian seizures in addition to influencing the Fourth Amendment. He’s also known for uttering, “For a man’s house is his castle.”

In other words, homeowners are king inside their home. If this property ownership affirmation is believed, than the inverse must also be valid that government is not ruler over one’s property.

St. George has become a tourism mecca. News articles circulate ad nauseam highlighting Southern Utah popularity as cities capitalize on local landmarks like Zion National Park drawing revenue and visitors from around the world.

Several recent city-led tourism milestones, when viewed in totality, have the earmarks of central control. One was to increase lodging quantity to meet demand thereby growing hotel room tax receipts. Another was tapping outsourced marketers superfluous rebranding Utah’s Dixie — “Greater Zion.” This includes removing “Dixie” from Dixie Convention Center landmark. Sometimes, unintended consequences appear intentional and calculated at the same time. The last step involves government transportation from St. George to Zion leveraged with state grants.

One entity is still excluded from city-sanctioned tourism umbrella — owner-occupied short-term rentals. Airbnb has been grounded in St. George since 2015 when Mayor Jon Pike personally testified at Utah State Capitol in opposition to an owner-occupied short-term rental bill.

2016 file photo of St. George City as seen from the Dixie Rock/Sugarloaf formation at Pioneer Park, St. George, Utah, July 2016 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The genesis of the bill goes back to 2014 when St. George resident Stephen Palmer rented out his basement on Airbnb. After a year of hosting guests without incident, he was shutdown by St. George code enforcement. Soon after, city council voted short-term rentals banned in residential neighborhoods and enforcement policies would be adopted. The state bill in question called for some city-level regulation but prevented banning owner-occupied rentals outright.

Often times, neighbors snitching out neighbors for operating home shares will reflexively differ handling to modern-day Redcoat enforcement when perhaps open communication between two parties is the pathway to resolution and neighborly harmony.

Fast forward to 2020 and the dot connecting reveals outlawing owner-occupied short-term rentals means commercial short-term rentals in city-designated areas maintain market exclusivity — a text book example of government picking winners and losers.

The sharing economy is well underway across Utah. However, Utah’s Dixie status quo reeks of benefiting off “tourism income for me, but not for thee.” Thus we see with Stephen Palmer’s short Airbnb stint how personal property desires were sacrificed on the government alter of greater good. This causes wonderment today over how many commercial lodging build permits were in the pipeline around the time leading up to the city-sanctioned residential short-term rental ban?

St. George City Hall, St. George, Utah, June 20, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

When local governance bans home sharing commonly employed in neighboring cities, policy makers should be noted come election cycle — and replaced with property rights advocates.

Airbnb-type rentals differentiate themselves from hotels by offering alternatives. I’ve utilized Airbnb in several destinations including Seoul, Korea, Rome, Italy, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The commonality in all three rental decisions was price and location. The first destination was one block from Seoul Station. The second, a short stroll from the Vatican. The third was a duplex walking distance from the beach which included private pool and hot tub, theater room, and bunk beds for each family member. Nightly rates were shockingly comparable to beachfront hotel chains down the street. In all three stays, several lodging types were evaluated and the best option considering price, needs and amenities was chosen.

Segments of the five million annual tourists to Bryce and Zion National Park would also choose Airbnb-type lodging were it not illegal. Your European, back-country hiker who simply wants a spare room to crash on a budget won’t find Airbnb in downtown St. George. Contrast this home sharing desert with neighboring oasis when a downtown Provo Airbnb set me back $37.50. Often times, campsites near national parks are booked out well in advance and last minute hotel reservations during marathon or Huntsman Games are at a premium.

While developers focus on building short-term rental units in city-approved areas with occupancy scale and space, some families may prefer niche vacation rentals or more private spaces. Reasons range anywhere from more beds and accommodating family pets to seeking out that one-of-a-kind lodging adventure.

Individual lodging decisions should drive consumer choice over bureaucratic control. If two parties contract a spare bedroom rental, what business is it of government? While noise ordinance and public nuisances such as parking are commonly cited, existing laws deal with these types of violations. If a majority of out-of-town stopovers in St. George neighborhoods occur peacefully, why are some cities up in arms if foreigners desire likewise with an attached fee? How much should the control factor influence short-term rental legalization when the king is getting his cut? Airbnbs have been operating without incident in cities around the world for well over a decade.

Economics is about understanding human action. Economist Steve Horowitz notes, “All the choices that we make, whenever we’re choosing in the face of scarcity, whenever we face uncertainty, in the face of trade-offs … what drives those choices are peoples subjective interpretations of the world.”

City regulators acting like commissars cannot adequately predict self-interests of, cooperation with, or claim to know unique behaviors among thousands of constituents.

Free markets are good at responding to individual needs when left uninhibited. Due to tourism downturn related to COVID-19, hotels are experiencing slow rebound compounded by high supply. Short-term rentals could have provided a release valve if allowed to compete while hotel chains curb benefits like pools, breakfast buffets, and room services due to covid regulation. The quantity of both homeowner and peer-to-peer renter benefiting from home shares is largely unknown. The former would reap financially during record-high unemployment while the latter from capitalizing on scaled-back amenities through lower rental rates.

Vacationing families fleeing government-mandated lock downs from nearby states poured into Southern Utah in recent months. As with any travel excursion, risk assessment is an ongoing component of daily living which parties should determine free of government coercion. I’m reminded of Lenore Skenazy’s statement on child autonomy needs equally applicable to human needs during covid, “All the worry in the world doesn’t prevent death. It prevents life.

Another unseen benefit of owner-occupied short-term rentals is exposing young people to the sharing economy.

What if teenagers could earn money without car expenses and exchange entry-level employment with at-home flexible hours? Stephen Palmer was attempting exactly that with his children in 2014 when cited with home rental cease and desist backed by threat of force. How many St. George families today would have benefited from home sharing given the opportunity?

I was doing math with my older boys the other day as primer to the gig economy. At $65 nightly rental fee, it will take 138 nights to reach almost $9,000. That works out to roughly 34 nights a year over 4 years. Of course, learning the business and committing to cleaning guest rooms are prerequisites. A new incentive is realized once teens discover guests rate room cleanliness, or lack thereof, online. Hospitality is an in-demand skill one could utilize as a side hustle during college years. Zion Canyon tours could even be touted as an add-on feature.

Five years later, let’s not pretend justifications like “local control” killed both the bill and Palmer’s dreams of home sharing. It wasn’t safety concerns standing in the way of supplemental income for thousands of homeowners nor hosting guests half-way around the world. Why has St. George perpetuated the housing rental ban five years later? Government protectionism, plain and simple.

Submitted by RYAN SCHUDDE, St. George.

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!