Norfolk beefing up enforcement on those operating unregistered Airbnb rentals, with more changes coming


A unit this Condominium along Pretty Lake Avenue is used as a short term rental (Scott Blessing/WAVY Photo)

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — In an effort to get more short-term rental operators to register with the city, costly penalties could soon be coming for properties found out of compliance.

It was one of several changes made by Norfolk City Council Tuesday meant to better manage the growing industry.

Short-term rentals are defined as “dwellings” in which rooms or the entire unit is rented for fewer than 30 days. Even if they are also used as a primary residence, the owner of a short-term rental is required by the city to obtain a permit and a business license to pay city and state taxes every time someone pays to stay in the house or apartment — just like hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts.

Many homeowners use services like Airbnb and Vrbo to advertise and say it’s a way to make ends meet while catering to tourists who may not want to stay in a traditional hotel.

The problem is, many people are not registering, according to George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director.

As of Tuesday, less than 100 properties had registered with the city, but city staff believes between 500 and 600 are actually operating.

“In order to get some of the frequent flyers of violators to comply, we need to do a better job of getting into their wallet,” Homewood said, in a presentation to City Council last week.

Moving forward, a civil penalty for a first violation will cost a property owner $200, with each subsequent violation $500. Virginia Beach instituted a similar fee structure last month.

Up until this time, violations surrounding short-term rentals could result in a summons to criminal court.

However, it was the other changes council made that lead Councilman Tommy Smigiel — who represents an area where many short-term rentals are located — to cast the lone dissenting vote.

Moving forward, operating a short-term rental legally will require a different process depending on where a property is located, how large it is and what it’s used for.

For those who want to use their personal residence in most of the city, they can rent up to five bedrooms with no more than two people staying in them once they obtain both a business license and a zoning permit through the city.

However, if a person lives along the bayfront in communities like Ocean View and Willoughby Spit, the requirements vary. If a homeowner lives full-time in a home they intend to use as a short-term rental, they can follow the process as the rest of the city.

If they own the property just to use it as a short term rental and have four to five bedrooms — or the property is a multi-family building with four or more units — in order to rent the property, the owner must get City Council’s blessing in a process that can take anywhere from two to three months at minimum.

Parking requirements also vary throughout the city. All short-term rentals moving forward must be advertised identically on national booking platforms, have the owner’s 24-hour contact information posted both inside and outside the unit and have written permission from neighboring property owners if a driveway is being shared.

“I don’t think this solves the problems,” Smigiel said. “All we are doing at the end of the day are continuing to confuse people.”

Smigiel, as well as Councilwoman Andria McClellan, said they didn’t understand why those with larger properties were being put through the longer process, as they had not received any complaints.

Vice Mayor Martin Thomas, who represents Willoughby Spit, chimed in to say he could “introduce you to an entire street in Willoughby” that has been burdened by renters of a large house staying up late and partying at night.

“It’s just not conducive,” Martin said. “I am not going to sit here and say (this solution is) perfect … this is not an easy topic.”

McClellan and others say they hope to continue revisiting and revising the regulations.

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