Lawmakers may solve Utah’s problem with outlaw AirBNBs and improve affordable housing in the state in the process. Robert Gehrke explains.

Bill would let cities crack down on thousands of illegal short-term rentals and facilitate more moderate-income housing

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

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Don’t get me wrong: I like short-term rentals.

But last year, I wrote about a real problem: The exploding short-term rental market in Utah was exacerbating an already-untenable housing shortage in the state.

What’s more, a significant portion of these short-term rentals are located in places where cities say they’re not allowed due to zoning restrictions, but the Legislature had tied cities’ hands, passing legislation five years ago prohibiting municipalities from enforcing the zoning restrictions by going on an Airbnb or VRBO website and identifying illegal rentals.

Instead, they had to wait for another violation — a noise complaint from a neighbor or a police call.

That may finally be about to change.

On Wednesday, Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, released a major affordable housing bill with a lot of good provisions (more on those later), including the last lines of the measure, which would repeal the silly restriction on how cities are allowed to crack down on illegal short-term rentals.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Steve Waldrip discusses the air quality legislation and appropriations requests during the 2021 General Session, along with the Utah LegislatureÕs bipartisan Clean Air Caucus, during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol, on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

When I wrote my piece last year, I got a lot of blowback from short-term rental hosts and the property rights crowd.

“Although I understand all of your complaints, I disagree that government should have any control over what anyone does with their private property,” one reader wrote about my piece. “Only a liberal would suggest that government control and interfere with what citizens do with private property. … People like you disgust me.”

Waldrip will probably get some of that same flack. And I understand those who think: What’s the big deal if I let someone rent a dwelling for a few nights?

Well, for one thing, they are illegal. And, as Waldrip — who is not a liberal — explains, they can disrupt communities.

“While they’re a great tool in the right location, in the wrong locations, they can cause some problems with the neighborhoods and communities where they’re not zoned for it,” he said. “There’s an expectation when people move into a neighborhood and the zoning is such that they’re not allowed. When they become prevalent and change the neighborhood, you have a whole different feel.”

Then there’s the sheer scope of the market and its impact on Utah’s overall housing picture. There are 19,000 short-term rental units statewide, according to the Kem Gardner Policy Institute. Each of those is a rental unit that a Utahn could otherwise call home. Waldrip said an estimated 30% of them are not legally situated.

The problem is especially acute in resort communities like Park City, where more than a third of the structures in town are short-term rentals and the city has less than a quarter of the affordable housing it needs.

“If you take those rentals that are inappropriately held for overnight rentals and put them back into the housing market, you’re talking about a significant number of housing units coming back into the market,” Waldrip said.

Moving those 5,700 units back into the long-term rentals could help put a meaningful dent in the estimated 55,000-unit shortage in single-family homes, apartments and other types of housing across the state.

Obviously, it doesn’t solve the entire problem. That’s where the rest of Waldrip’s bill comes in.

The cornerstone of the bill is an inventory of moderate-income housing statewide, so we can identify the biggest problem areas, set targets for how much each community should be contributing to the solution and then devote resources to getting to that goal. And it comes with resources, seeking $50 million for the Olene Walker Housing fund.

Under the bill, cities would be required to submit specific strategies to develop affordable housing and prioritize the money to those willing to be most aggressive about the mission. A revision, Waldrip said, will direct communities to build around Trax, FrontRunner and bus corridors.

It puts another $50 million into a rural housing loan fund aimed at helping bolster investments in housing and pay for labor in places that are short on both.

“As bad as the problem is along the Wasatch Front, I think it’s even more acute in rural Utah,” Waldrip said. “We have communities in rural Utah where they have two or three homes available but they have 150 to 200 job openings.”

There are other good elements to the bill, too, like a requirement that 20% of the housing at the old state prison site be allocated to moderate-income occupants. It’s a good piece of legislation, potentially a game-changer. And it is sure to ruffle some feathers of those who are fed up with more construction and more housing density and think it erodes their quality of life.

But as Waldrip sees it, his bill seeks to make sure our next generation can afford to live here and preserve Utah’s quality of life.

“We have to start preaching … that for the first time since the pioneers, in-migration to Utah last year was greater than our native growth,” he said. “If we want to destroy the quality of life in Utah, the fastest path is to export our kids because they don’t have housing and import people from other places who can afford really expensive housing.”