Homeowners Have the Right to Share Their Property

The following op-ed, written by our president Connor Boyack, was published this weekend in the Salt Lake Tribune.

The self-styled “sharing economy” has brought innovation and efficiency to a number of industries in Utah, each of which has struggled to navigate byzantine and protectionist policies. Uber and Lyft drivers were fined $6,500 each time investigators discovered them until the state legislature legalized their operation. Zenefits was shut down from offering their innovative services until the backlash led to swift change in the Utah Department of Insurance. And still, Tesla remains unable to sell their new vehicles directly to Utah drivers.

Add Airbnb and VRBO to the list. These companies facilitate “short-term rentals”—offering a space in one’s home for a couple days or weeks at a time. While long-term rentals (30 or more days) are generally legal throughout the state, their short-term counterparts are not shown the same hospitality. In many cities, they are restricted to the point of effectively being banned.

So much for property rights.

Proponents of tight restrictions on short-term rentals point to past problems as a justification for denying homeowners the right to rent out a room in their home. St. George, for example, prohibits them in almost all residential zones citing a past problem with a “party house” rented out to noisy delinquents. Councilwoman Michele Randall claims to have spoken with residents “who have had vacation rentals near their homes and they say it’s a big party with loud music and cars coming and going all night.”

There are two important points to make here. First, the rights of the many should not be violated because of the actions of a few; one rental becoming a party house does not mean that the rest are likely to cause the same problems. Second, and more importantly, there are already existing ordinances to abate nuisances—light, noise, traffic, etc.

Any home can be temporarily turned into a “party house.” Banning short-term rentals on this basis is like denying people the right to possess firearms on the basis that a very small minority will use them to harm others. We should focus on the underlying problem rather than the superficial connection. In the case of short-term rentals, cities should deal with actual nuisances from any residence, rather than prohibit all homeowners from peaceably providing lodging to others.

Many Utah cities ban short-term rentals using their land use ordinances—in other words, the laws governing how you can use your property. To be consistent, cities should remain focused on actual use of the property. Renting a room for a night to a traveler passing through town becomes no different than having your mother-in-law stay for the weekend. Both involve an extra car parked on the driveway or the street, and an extra person in the home. 

Further, long-term rentals are largely legal—as if a person staying at your home for 31 days is materially different than 29. Arbitrary limits such as these become confusing and unreasonable when not connected to any underlying principle.

A study last year by Libertas Institute found that many cities throughout Utah explicitly ban short-term rentals for most or all properties, such as Herriman, Moab, Hurricane, Midway, Park City, Provo, St. George, Syracuse, and Washington. Many others similarly enforce a prohibition against them using land-use ordinances. Because single family residential zones do not explicitly allow a short-term rental, it is inferred by many city planners that they are by default prohibited.

Legislation designed to prohibit cities from arbitrarily banning short-term rentals was drafted this year on grounds that the use of property is not inherently different from letting a friend or family member use a spare room. The government should therefore not have an interest in regulating this practice unless and until it becomes an actual nuisance, much like any nuisance in any type or use of residential property. Unfortunately, the government definitely does assert an interest; the Utah League of Cities and Towns lobbied against the bill in order to preserve the status quo and allow cities to continue to arbitrarily regulate away the rights of homeowners. 

But the issue isn’t going away, and more legislative attempts will be forthcoming. As with other innovative enterprises, the public is on the side of Airbnb and VRBO. These popular services fill a void in Utah’s marketplace and do so in a way that enriches communities by creating friendships and experiences between a host and their guests.

Nobody wants a party happening next door, but this actually happening is highly unlikely and, to the extent it does happen, can be dealt with using existing nuisance laws. Whether it’s Grandma visiting for the weekend or honeymooners looking to rent a basement for the week, homeowners in Utah have the right to peaceably use their property in the sharing economy.