The following op-ed was published this week in the Deseret News.
With over 100,000 people in Utah having filed for unemployment since mid-March, wouldn’t it be nice if those Utahns rendered jobless by the pandemic could use their own property to help make ends meet? You might think that a good option to bring in some extra cash would be to safely rent out a room in your home to visitors through sites like Airbnb or VRBO. But if this worldwide panic has taught us anything, it’s that this prospect is more complicated than it seems—because of the government.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted governments around the world to restrict the use of short-term rentals. Airbnb compiled a list of restrictions that have impacted rental sites. In Utah, the Southeast Utah Health Department issued an order which prohibited all overnight and short-term lodging outside of essential visitors in Carbon, Emery and Grand County. This order stifled the tourism industry in these counties.
In fact, the tourism industry was one of the primary justifications referenced for issuing such an order. The order states that given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the powers granted to local health departments by state law, and the heightened likelihood of widespread transmission resulting from the tourist industry in these counties, it was perceived as necessary to shut down all non-essential activities.
The argument here is simple: there is an activity that could harm other people, Utah law allows the health department to do something about it, so the department decides to take action. Key to this argument is the idea that the use of a person’s property as a short-term rental is dangerous in and of itself. In the case of a pandemic with the spread of disease causing an increased risk to health and safety, this might have been true.
But this is not the only time that local governments in Utah have restricted short-term rentals. In fact, some cities in Utah flat out prohibit any and all room rentals for a period of less than thirty days. Allowing the government to be able to restrict your property use under emergency circumstances is questionable—but should they be able to do it under normal, non-pandemic circumstances?
In the face of a pandemic, the mere presence of a visitor could pose a threat to the health and safety of a community. But under normal circumstances, the problems that have been most frequently cited by those opposing short-term rentals are not inherently linked to the presence of a visitor. Those problems are the statistically unlikely results of the rare visitor’s occasional actions.
These complaints often center around extra garbage, bothersome parking, and excessive noise. Certainly, these issues can become problems—but they would be problems whether the person causing them was a full time resident, long-term renter, or a one night visitor. These issues should not constitute a reason to prohibit short-term rentals. Instead, problems such as these should be dealt with directly, when they actually happen.
Utah law gives local governments the power to declare what constitutes a nuisance, fine those who are the cause of a nuisance, and, if necessary, resolve the nuisance. Cities throughout Utah have laws punishing excessive noise, limiting bothersome parking, and prohibiting unruly garbage. What this means is that if and when a visitor of a short-term rental causes any of these problems, there are ordinances in place to remedy the situation. The problem can be dealt with directly, rather than banning an entire economic opportunity out of fear of the rare problem.
But if property owners and their guests are not causing any problems—which is certainly the case if their rental goes unnoticed by their neighbors, which happens often—they should be able to proceed as desired. Infringing on a person’s property rights before they have violated a law or caused a problem is not the proper role of local government.
Local governments properly exist to protect the health, safety and welfare of the individuals who live there—not to target private activities that are ancillary to actual problems. As we begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities like using a portion of one’s home as a short-term rental may prove vital to some who experience long-term unemployment. Weathering this economic storm by better utilizing one’s own property should be an option, limited by local government limitations that only narrowly target bad behavior.