Regulations for short-term rentals in San Antonio are already being considered by City officials through a task force and public meetings, but some neighbors are opposing a zoning change that would bring the conversation to the Zoning Commission.

During the commission’s meeting on Tuesday, May 16, City staff will recommend approval of a zoning change that would allow for three small apartments to be built behind a historic home on a large lot in the Dignowity Hill Historic District. The property owners’ request is in line with the 2009 neighborhood plan for low density residential zoning in that area, but they are considering listing at least one of the units on the short-term rental platform Airbnb.

Out of the 35 notices of the rezoning that went out to addresses within 200 feet of the property, as required when anyone requests a change, 12 letters came back in support and four in opposition of the change. The notices did not include information about possible short-term rental use.

Some neighbors are concerned that the new structure will only attract more cars and strangers to the block: If the rooms are not used by residents, should they be considered businesses? Should they instead have to request mixed-use, commercial-residential zoning? These are concerns and questions that many have throughout the city and are being heard by the task force looking into how to regulate short-term rentals.

Lauren and Chris Mongeon have been renting out three of the four bedrooms in their home in Dignowity Hill through Airbnb for less than a year. They purchased their home on Nolan Avenue in 2015 and moved in in June 2016.

The revenue generated from their guests has allowed them to recoup some of the costs of a pricey historic renovation and plan for the construction of a two-car, two-story garage in their back yard – which would feature three apartment units. Once built, the Mongeons plan on finding long-term tenants for the two units on top of the garage and using Airbnb for the bottom unit, Lauren said.

“There’s no regulation on [short-term rentals] currently,” she told the Rivard Report. “But whatever [rules] come from the City, we’ll comply with.”

“The long-term plan is not to use [the units for] Airbnb,” Chris added. Those plans include children, who would take up the other rooms in the house, and to have a place in the garage for additional visitors and family to stay in.

The design of the structure would have to be approved by the Historic and Design Review Commission, as would any building in an official historic district. The Mongeons are just starting this process, but they wanted to make sure the right zoning is in place first.

Most of their neighbors support the Mongeons’ garage apartment project, Lauren said. “A minority is opposed.”

That minority is suspicious of the Mongeons’ plans. At capacity, if they decide to keep all their short-term rental options open, there could be as many as six guests in the main house and six in the garage apartments – assuming they pair off. Twelve people could potentially need a lot of parking, said neighbor Lorena Havill, but zoning rules don’t require parking based on how many bedrooms a property has, but rather measure by residential “unit.”

Though not required, the Mongeons have a plan to provide ample off-street parking behind their home for guests.

Havill spoke to about 30 residents Monday evening who gathered for what was billed as a “HOT!! IMPORTANT COMMUNITY FORUM RE: ZONING” in the subject line of one email invite sent to neighbors by the immediate past president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, Dee Smith. Event organizers emphasized that this was not an association meeting.

Havill admitted that the Mongeons’ request was in line with the 2009 neighborhood plan, but “there’s a complication of another use [short-term rental] of the property that was not disclosed on the application.”

Lorena Havill speaks to the crowd gathered at Ella Austin Community Center to talk about zoning and short-term rental rules.
Lorena Havill (standing) speaks about zoning and short-term rental rules at the Ella Austin Community Center to talk Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Cullen Jones, Havill’s husband, suggested that it’s time to update the neighborhood plan, a “living document” that was supposed to last 20 years. Havill and Jones are opposed to the zoning request.

Development in the neighborhood has been “hit into hyperdrive,” Jones said. “Twenty years worth of growth has been crammed into 10.”

Neighborhood plans in San Antonio don’t address short-term rentals, a relatively new technological travel industry disruption, nor does City code.

Havill rented out the meeting space at Ella Austin Community Center in order to educate her neighbors on zoning and spread awareness about how the process works, she said. But much of the conversation was focused on short-term rentals and the Mongeons, who did not attend the meeting. Havill couldn’t answer all her neighbors’ questions as she herself is still learning how the zoning process works.

“But we can’t pretend those rooms [and Airbnb] don’t exist or impact land use,” she said.

That broader conversation is one that neighborhoods are having across the city.

Lauren and Chris Mongeon sit on the steps of their house on Nolan Street.
Lauren and Chris Mongeon sit on the steps of their house on Nolan Street. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association (DHNA) reviewed the case and decided not to submit an official opinion when it went before the Zoning Commission on April 18, said its President Brian Dillard. The commission granted a continuance to allow for more time for stakeholder discussion, which occurred during a separate meeting on Monday with Dillard, Havill, the Mongeons, City staff, and other members of the neighborhood association.

Havill’s meeting on Monday was an effort for even more discussion, she said.

The DHNA will also discuss the matter during its general membership meeting on Monday, May 15 at 6 p.m. Zoning commissioners will review the zoning case the next day during their meeting on Tuesday, May 16 at 2 p.m.

“Their proposed zoning change does comply with the neighborhood plan,” Dillard told the Rivard Report, adding that “this project can’t define the future of short-term rentals.” That process is underway at the City’s Development Services Department. The next task force meeting is May 30, and the next general meeting is June 11. These and future meetings are open to the public.

Longtime Dignowity Hill resident Barbara Garcia told Havill and those gathered Monday night that there were better ways of having this conversation, alluding to the format of the aforementioned meetings.

“This whole process here is very disturbing to me,” Garcia said. “This shouldn’t be done in an environment where everyone is riled up about one case.”

She would prefer a meeting “led in an impartial manner, led by experts.”

Some members suspect that the debate over this specific zoning change is the result of personal disputes within the neighborhood association.

The DHNA’s Architectural Review Committee also is hosting two meetings focused on gathering input on May 30 and June 24 at Ella Austin Community Center at 6 p.m. These will inform the neighborhood association’s official position on short-term rental regulations, which are not expected to be finalized until mid-November at the earliest.

Liz Franklin, a review committee member, said she had concerns about short-term rental “business models” moving into historic homes.

“There are projects [in Dignowity Hill] coming across the Zoning Commission once or twice a week,” Franklin said during Havill’s meeting on Monday night. “We need to know how to deal with them.”

Liz Franklin (right, pink shirt) opens up the meeting with remarks about the Mongeons' zoning request.
Liz Franklin (right, pink shirt) opens up the meeting with remarks about the Mongeons’ zoning request. Credit: Iris Dimmick / Iris Dimmick

Dillard acknowledged that the neighborhood association is “going to have to deal with some new dynamics. We’re in transition as an organization.”

So is the neighborhood.

DHNA is one of the most active neighborhood associations in the city, he said, “and we have to be.”

Revitalization – some might call it gentrification – of the near-Eastside is gaining momentum and the consequences, in addition to increasing property values, are changing demographics: race, income, profession, and age, among others. Meanwhile, neighborhoods across the city are bracing themselves for the more than 1 million people expected to move to the San Antonio area by 2040. Balancing growth and preservation is a task for leaders at the neighborhood and municipal levels.

“We have 100 city blocks of residents, of course it’s going to be a difficult thing to get them all on one page,” Dillard said. Disputes like these represent the “growing pains” of progress.

“We’re still neighbors, so I just hope we can get back to being neighbors.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org