Regulation

How Virginia Lawmakers Are Harassing Short-Term Renters

The sharing economy faces big government obstacles.

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Should government agents be able to barge into your home without your permission, to make sure it's being kept up? For three Richmond councilmen the answer may be: yes, if you're a renter. For at least one of them the answer is: yes, even if you own the place.

Last year Jonathan Baliles, Charles Samuels, and Parker Agelasto introduced a paper to start a rental-inspection program in the city. The measure has not gained much momentum, but it hasn't died either. The council held a hearing on it last month. Now there's a related development: A few days ago Style Weekly reported that Richmonders hoping to take in boarders through Airbnb can, to borrow a term from legal jurisprudence, go climb a rope. The UCI world cycling championships take place here in September, and hundreds of homeowners had hoped to make a little coin on the side by renting out rooms. But city rules forbid rentals shorter than 30 days.

Just why the city forbids short-term room rentals isn't intuitively obvious, unless you suspect the hotel interests put the city up to it. After all, you can rent many other things—cars, power tools, bouncy houses—for short periods, and nobody seems to mind. But the debate over rental inspections also offers plenty of reasons for scratching your head.

For starters, why have an inspection program in the first place? The city already has a code enforcement division, and a tenant with a grievance about unsafe or unsanitary conditions already can go to the city for help. (Go to the Code Enforcement page of RichmondGov.com and look for the Citizens' Request System link.) It's been suggested the inspection program is needed because the code-enforcement division isn't sufficiently aggressive. If so, then why not fix that, rather than create a new program out of whole cloth?

Furthermore, thanks to state law the rental-inspection program must be selective. It cannot apply citywide, but must be limited to specific areas where the buildings are old, or blighted, or might one day become blighted. But a landlord can act unscrupulously in a new neighborhood just as easily as she can in an old one. So, for that matter, can a tenant. If a renter knocks a hole in the wall or causes carpets to mold by not cleaning up a spill, is it fair to hold the owner responsible for that?

There's also a privacy concern. Who wants a complete stranger traipsing through his home, rummaging around the kitchen and peeking into the bedroom closets? Renters have a right to refuse entry to an inspector without a warrant, but how many of them know that? Ironically, one of the reasons Agelasto cites for starting an inspection program is that many renters might not know how to report a problem. Requiring landlords to include that information in rental packets would seem far simpler and less intrusive. Maybe they should include copies of the Constitution, too.

Indeed, last year the ACLU of Virginia warned the city of Hampton that its rental-inspection program violated the Constitution because it allowed inspectors to enter a domicile without a warrant. Four years ago Chesterfield killed an inspection proposal for related reasons. (Twenty-one Virginia localities currently have rental inspection programs.)

Another liberties guardian, the Arlington-based Institute for Justice, has filed suits over rental-inspection programs in other states, arguing that thanks to such programs, criminals have more rights than law-abiding citizens: "Before police can get a warrant to search someone's home, they need probable cause of unlawful activity," but rental-inspection programs "allow government officials to barge in on someone's home without probable cause of a crime or code violation."

Supporters of rental-inspection programs contend that they help sustain property values, especially in single-family-home neighborhoods. As one of them put it recently, an "investment class" can buy up houses in a neighborhood and rent them out, "and that rental income is being profited, not reinvested." So the houses deteriorate, dragging down the values of the houses around them. Inspections ensure upkeep.

Perhaps—but then why limit inspections to rental homes? Some homeowners let their own houses deteriorate. Why not inspect them?

"The only reason," Agelasto said last week, "is because that's what the state code says." If the code changed, would he support inspecting non-rental homes as well? "If that's what the homeowners want, sure."

By "what the homeowners want," he is referring to community support. In theory, an inspection program might apply only in those sectors where residents support it. But no one has specified how much support would be needed for the program to apply. More importantly, nowhere does the Constitution say the Fourth Amendment can be nullified by a show of hands.

One other justification for inspections might be the most insidious: Through rehabilitation tax credits and other means, Agelasto says, "a lot of government money" already has gone into the housing market, and "one thing we want to do as a government is protect that investment." From one angle, that looks like good stewardship of public resources. From another, it looks like one dubious government program has created the justification for another.

Funny how often it works out that way.

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  1. Virginia is for lovers of rent-seeking.

    1. Literally.

  2. Maybe they should include copies of the Constitution, too.

    But there’s no easy avenue to report violations of that, either.

    1. Pennsylvania Avenue is reasonably close. There have been big crowds there before.

  3. The SF city government is doing all it can to keep ABB rentals to a minimum, since it takes long-term rentals off the market.
    Strangely, the rent -control laws which do the same are promoted by that same government.

  4. That don’t confront me
    Long as I get my money next Friday.

    1. One bourbon, one scotch, one beer!

    2. I said, “But I’m tired! I been walkin’ all day!”

  5. I don’t often support more regs but in this case I do. I buy a house to live (with my neighbors) in a residential neighborhood. Same applies to a condo. I do not wish to live next to a hotel or motel. Anyone who has a second residence at a vacation/resort type area (and spends more than a passing weekend) knows that short term renters are often the largest nuisance to the community. Why? They just don’t give a fuck. The burden then falls upon the neighbors to deal directly with the short term renters and then later with the owner.

    Bottom line: your decision to go into the motel hotel holiday inn business has a negative effect on my quality of life and the value of my property. Use your property as you wish but the moment your decisions affect me, you have crossed the line.

    1. Short term renters are not a guaranteed nuisance. You want to outlaw activity based on a perceived risk, not the actual outcome.

    2. I don’t often support more regs but in this case I do. I buy a house to live (with my neighbors) in a white neighborhood. Same applies to a condo. I do not wish to live next to a house full of niggers. Anyone who has a second residence at a vacation/resort type area (and spends more than a passing weekend) knows that nigger renters are often the largest nuisance to the community. Why? They just don’t give a fuck. The burden then falls upon the neighbors to deal directly with the nigger renters and then later with the owner.

      Bottom line: your decision to see or rent your house to a nigger has a niggative effect on my quality of life and the value of my property. Use your property as you wish but the moment your decisions affect me, you have crossed the line.

      1. I think we’re done with Mr. Stilgar now.

      2. Gotta remember that word, it’s adorable!

    3. How Tulpical. Fuck off.

    4. Since your POV is to deny your neighbor the income, you have now affected him and you must pay to make up for the damage you caused him. Seems fair.

      1. Akk and why should property values of a person’s domicil consistently rise upwardly? Presumably a person gets a place to live in order to live there, perhaps as also a place to do some kind of work, but this common idea that one’s home ought also to serve as an investment, which is to say, that it should appreciate in value for some future day when apparently a person means to sell it, is strange. One might buy a place with this intention, but he’s then not treating it seriously as a domicil. And if a person really means to stay someplace and make a home of it, increasing his property value may not actually be desirable. If one never means to sell, then increased “value” just means the got to pay more taxes. As a rule, it seems like folks invoking the depreciating property values justification don’t really seem to mean it that hard but instead it’s just something they think they can get away with to rationalise forcing their neighbours to conform to some otherwise outragious imposition on their property rights.

        1. People spent so long living w rising real estate prices, they’ve a ridiculous tendency to take it for granted. If real estate bubbles weren’t so propped up by gov’t policy, if people understood prices could go down as well as up, the world would be much better.

    5. Use your property as you wish but the moment your decisions affect me, you have crossed the line.

      So let’s pull a hypothetical here, since you are also supposing. Suppose you are the first to find a new uninhabited planet where you can live without a spacesuit. Trees, mountains, valleys, oceans, nice place. You pick your ideal spot, build your house, sit in a rocking chair on the porch, smoking your pipe. The picture of happiness.

      I come along, and settle on the opposite side of the planet. You can’t see me, smell me, hear me. So no objection.

      How about if I settle in the next valley over, and you can see the smoke from my chimney? Too much disruption?

      How about if I settle on the opposite side of the same valley? Now you can see me all the time, especially my night lights.

      What if I stay off the planet, but settle into polar orbit so you see my space ship lights every night?

      Or back to your little residential neighborhood and the reality of neighbor bbqs which you can smell. If the neighbor’s daughter works in the garden in her bikini, will you complain? How about the neighbor’s grandma in her bikini?

      What if a neighbor leaves a light on all night? What if the neighbor works night shift? What if you move into a neighborhood full of night shift families who object to you working day shift and disrupting their sleep periods?

      Your ideology has more holes and smells worse than rotten Swiss cheese.

    6. If you want to control what neighboring homeowners do with their property, you don’t need the government to bully them into compliace. There are voluntary alternatives.

      (1) you can buy their properties and use them as you see fit; or
      (2) more practically, you can live somewhere with an HoA and/or reciprocal easements to, voluntarily agreeing with your neighbors that you will enact some limitations on property use for the perceived greater good.

      Government force to impose your will is for assholes. You do not have a right to not be “affected” by your neighbor’s decisions. I mean, when you use your roads and all of your neighbors want to use the same roads at the same time, slowing your commute, do you have a right to demand that they stop? Of course not. so long as your neighbors are not directly intruding on your property or at least violating some noise ordinances that limit your reasonable enjoyment, then you should mind your own f’ing business.

  6. It is not even hotel interests necessarily. State and local governments have room taxes on hotel rooms and not on shory term rentals. Governments see tourists as easy marks, they do not vote in the district and they are easy to demonize to the permanant residents as they find tourist traffic annoying. The governments have a direct stake in maximizing visitors staying in hotels,

    1. Yep. And those tax rates are typically both high and undisclosed until it’s far too late to do anything about the cost.

  7. So you do not want others to dispose of their property as they see fit, due to a perceived harm. How about you document any deficiencies, report to the homeowner to adjudicate, and if no action file civil proceedings for damages. Why invent another govt. program/agency to do this for you? Mission creep in govt. is strangling our liberties. Fight every attempt to grow government on all fronts whenever possible.

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  9. The UCI world cycling championships take place here in September, and hundreds of homeowners had hoped to make a little coin on the side by renting out rooms. But city rules forbid rentals shorter than 30 days.

    So rent it for the 30 days, knowing the itinerant cyclist will be there a much shorter time. Since it’s just a 1-time event, what difference does it make? The city’s not going to require rentiers to show up & be counted twice 30 days apart.

  10. criminals have more rights than law-abiding citizens: “Before police can get a warrant to search someone’s home, they need probable cause of unlawful activity,”

    But that’s true generally, and it’s one of the myriad things that bother me about criminal law in the USA & probably many other countries. Apparently the only penalty for illegal search is that the evidence can’t be used in a criminal prosecution, so if you’re not guilty anyway, there is no penalty. It works exactly the opposite way of anything that’d be good.

    In fact I don’t understand why, that being the case, cities all over the country don’t make it a policy to regularly conduct sweeps of all private property as an anti-crime measure, and never prosecute anyone. Just stop all the (status, victimless, maybe even a few victimful) crimes that are going on, then leave. Come back the next day & take your narcotics or whatever again.

    Even if you’re guilty, seems the mere bar against using what’s seized as evidence is inadequate too. Why aren’t they required to give back your booty (contraband, stolen goods, whatever) if the search or seizure was illegal?

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