Local Advocate Fights Short-Term Rentals

Grace Renshaw didn’t need a new house. She and her husband had already paid off their mortgage, but it seemed like a good opportunity to invest in something that they could rent to their daughter and her roommates. So, in the spring of 2015, they purchased half of a duplex on Douglas Avenue in a vibrant neighborhood with a good mix of different people.
     Within the year, the other half of the duplex became a short-term rental property. Renshaw had no idea that meant the property would soon become a nightmare, one that challenged her belief that local homeowners were foremost in the minds of legislators.
     “We got the notice that the duplex’s other owner was going to rent it short term and I thought, ‘Great, I’ve got three 20-something girls living under the same roof with a steady stream of transients,’ ” Renshaw recalls. “We have no idea who’s checking in and who’s checking out, and we don’t have any power to control it.”
     According to Renshaw, District 18 Council Member Burkley Allen’s first draft of an ordinance to amend Title 17 of the Metropolitan Code for short-term rentals required that potential renters receive the permission of adjacent neighbors and limited the amount of Type 2 (not owner-occupied, single-family unit) rental permits to one per person, keeping investors from buying multiple properties and exclusively renting them out. Allen then revised her bill to become the much more permissive ordinance Nashville now has.
     As it stands now, owners of Type 2 and Type 3 (not owner-occupied, multifamily units) rentals are only required to inform neighbors if they plan to rent short term — not obtain their permission — and even that notification is only necessary if the neighbor shares a driveway or wall, says Renshaw. While ownership of Type 2 rentals is limited based on census tract, there are no limits on Type 1 (owner-occupied) or Type 3 rentals.
     “They set up a system that opens neighborhoods to the kind of commercial activities that they had never been open to before,” Renshaw says.
     The ordinance also qualifies Type 2 and Type 3 rentals for residential use, as opposed to commercial use, explains Renshaw. While other commercial uses of these types of properties, like turning them into music studios or massage parlors, are restricted, short-term rentals are allowed because they are deemed “accessory uses” of the residence.
     “That’s true if you actually live there and are renting one of your rooms part of the time,” Renshaw says. “But if the house is solely used for short-term rental, then it’s a primary use and a commercial use. But our law says that it’s a residential use and that it’s an accessory use. That’s dishonest. I want the law to be honest.”
     Allen did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the original draft of the ordinance or reasons for any changes it had undergone.
     Ultimately, Renshaw thinks these rules allow for the type of renters that disrupt the quality of life for many in East Nashville. “If you’re on vacation, of course you’re going to stay up late and enjoy yourself by the pool, and you’re going to drink more than you do regularly,” she says. “If you’re doing that in a residential neighborhood, all the people around you will have to get up for work and school and so on. It’s not a particularly compatible use.”
     To fight the rules she sees as unfair, Renshaw writes articles for local publications, participates in several advocacy committees, and lobbies local government. “I want to see Type 2 and Type 3 rentals eliminated,” she says. “I think that any commercial business that is unsupervised is a bad model.”
     But Renshaw acknowledges that it won’t be easy to sway decision makers in a city that’s become as development-driven as Nashville has. “I honestly think our ordinance is vulnerable to a valid legal challenge and that Metro has very cynically calculated that there wouldn’t be enough people to get the money and bring that challenge,” she says.
     Advocates for the elimination of short-term rentals hold out hope that others will see that they simply want what’s best for their neighbors. “I think you have to try,” Renshaw says. “This law sends a really awful message, which is that Nashville cares more about tourists and the tourism industry and the development industry than they do about the quality of life and the property values of permanent residents.”