I grew up an Army brat. My father’s job forced our family to move around the country every two years. Sometimes we had a house to live in, sometimes we didn’t. We missed celebrations of extended family. We couldn’t have pets. After we moved, it was hard to maintain friendships.
I never had roots until I found a home for sale on a quiet street in the King William Historic District in San Antonio. Not just a house, but a home with neighbors who welcomed me and cared about me. There was even a neighborhood cat who belonged to us all.
When I moved to King William, I discovered that “home” is a concept we have to keep fighting to uphold. Maybe it’s our proximity to downtown and the San Antonio River, but we’re targets for commercialization and gentrification. We’re constantly fighting the loss of housing stock and quality of life from various forces: the infiltration of infill development zoning, the loss of Main Avenue to H-E-B’s headquarters, and bed-and-breakfasts, among many others.
When commercial B&Bs started ousting residents, we fought hard for protection. Originally, B&Bs were permitted for residential properties only if the owner lived on the property and freely permitted in properties zoned commercial. In 1999, after several years of public input, City Council supplemented the owner-occupied requirement with two types of density restrictions.
First, the number of rentals or rooms per lot was limited based on zoning. Second, the number of B&Bs per block were limited based on distance – they couldn’t be within 300 feet laterally and 150 feet perpendicularly. Non-owner occupied B&Bs were again limited to commercially zoned property.
The density limits worked. They restricted the number of B&Bs in residential districts, at least until the City stopped enforcing the ordinance under the rationale that the same service (B&B) under a new name (Airbnb and others) must be something new – short-term rentals. Never mind that the 1999 ordinance never mentioned food but defined a B&B as “an establishment which supplies temporary accommodations to overnight guests for a fee.”
To quote from the San Antonio Conservation Society’s position statement, “the incredible amount of work that went into the 1999 Bed and Breakfast Ordinance should be reflected in the Short-Term Rental Ordinance. This includes maintenance of required distances between rental facilities.” It should also include the density restriction per lot.
But the draft ordinance does not limit the number of owner-occupied short-term rentals (Type 1) in any given neighborhood, either by the number of rooms or by distance. There is nothing to prevent large homes or small apartments from being cut up into multiple short-term rentals. There is nothing to prevent entire blocks from becoming Type 1 rentals. The term “owner-occupied” is so loosely defined that several lawyers at recent hearings have questioned its viability.
The draft ordinance even allows non-owner-occupied short-term rentals (Type 2) in residential zoning and limits their density only in relation to other Type 2s, but not to B&Bs or Type 1s. Not surprisingly, residential property owners perceive this commercial intrusion as an affront to their property rights. And B&B owners perceive their property rights are under attack because competitors can move in next door when previously they could not.
Wholesale change in certain historic districts has already begun, and we should be concerned about the impact on the block and street level without having to reach an arbitrary threshold of any certain percentage of available housing in the larger area. Just around the corner from me, there are seven Type 2 short-term rentals on one block. In the nearby Lavaca Historic District, there are five short-term rentals within a block of each other. Lucky me, I always wanted to live in a de facto hotel district.
Faced with a similar situation, New Orleans banned all short-term rentals from the French Quarter. I am not suggesting such a restriction here, but I am suggesting that all the citizens of San Antonio should be proud of King William, the oldest residential historic district in the state, and we should all advocate for its continued existence as a place where people make their homes and raise their families.
When you live in a neighborhood of long-term residents, some neighbors are fun and friendly. Others are irritating. Some share your values, others don’t. But everyone is invested in ensuring the safety, security, and viability of the neighborhood.
Let me give you a concrete example: One night I awoke to police officers marching down my unlit hallway with flashlights in hand. They were there because my neighbor was walking her dog at 2 a.m. and saw that my front door was open in a darkened house; she didn’t hesitate to call 911. Only a neighbor would have taken this prompt action.
The individual owners of short-term rentals, whether Type 1 or Type 2, may have powerful stories about saving derelict houses or paying their tax bills. The regulation of short-term rentals, however, should not be based on these individual stories. It should be based on collective agreement that the central component of what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood is the people who live there, not the people passing through.