Finding ways to regulate and tax Internet-based travel accommodations such as Airbnb and other rental websites may be on the agenda for Georgia lawmakers when they convene in January.
It’s an issue that reverberates across Hall County, where short-term rentals of homes on Lake Lanier have caused some controversy.
For example, just last week the county Marshal’s Office opened an investigation on a Northlake Road lake home that has operated as a short-term, vacation rental without proper permitting.
And Hall County has faced some difficulty collecting the hotel/motel tax due from vacation rental properties.
The Board of Commissioners has broad discretion to approve or disapprove of vacation rental requests.
State Rep. Terry Rogers, a Clarkesville Republican chairing a study committee on the subject, said he is looking to answer a few things before making any recommendations to lawmakers.
Rogers said he wants to define what constitutes a short-term rental, review local ordinances addressing the issue and then determine if statewide regulation is needed.
“There is a possibility of regulation,” he added.
Tuesday’s first study committee meeting revealed some of these tricky questions that members will have to answer.
For instance, in addition to deciding what qualifies as a short-term rental, they will likely consider how to treat apartments or homes available 365 days a year versus private homes in places around Lake Lanier or in Athens that might only be rented out during the University of Georgia’s home football game weekends.
“I think that in a community, neighbors, homeowners and property owners should be considerate of one another,” state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said. “Totally absent of regulation, then abuse takes place.”
State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said he thought the study committee may be connected to a new $5-per-night fee on hotel and motel stays passed by the legislature this year to help pay for transportation projects.
Rogers said there have been calls from some to apply that fee to short-term rentals, such as Lake Lanier homes.
As Georgia and other states debate whether to regulate the growing industry, cities including Portland, San Francisco and coastal Savannah have moved ahead with local laws.
Savannah officials told committee members about their yearlong process to develop a city ordinance defining short-term rentals and ensuring owners pay taxes and minimize noise or parking problems.
Writing their own regulations allowed officials to be specific about Savannah’s needs, particularly in historic areas where popular rentals irritated full-time residents, said Jennifer Herman, an assistant city attorney.
“This is really very much a unique local issue,” Herman said. “Our experience has been (focused) on a landmark historic district that’s not similar to other jurisdictions. I don’t think you can paint an across-the-board rule that can apply.”
Representatives for Georgia’s hotels, motels and inns said the status quo isn’t fair statewide. Holly McHaggee, president of the Georgia Innkeepers Association, owns a bed-and-breakfast in Rome, Georgia.
McHaggee said she bought her home specifically to run a business, complying with required licensing and inspections. New technology, she said, makes it too easy for others to skip those steps.
“In my mind, if you’re getting compensation for overnight lodging, you’re a business and that takes a business license,” she said.
Representatives for Airbnb and HomeAway, two popular services for finding rentals, told the committee they’re open to simple regulations but also count on renters to hold owners accountable.
Hosts and guests rate each other after an Airbnb stay, creating “real-time accountability,” said Jillian Irvin, public policy director for the San Francisco-based firm.
“So if there’s no smoke detector, a guest is able to report that to the company and the company talks to the host,” she said.
The committee has until Dec. 1 to make a recommendation to the full House of Representatives.
Rogers, of Clarkesville, said the panel will hold at least two more meetings to hear from representatives for city and county governments and discuss revenue and consumer affairs issues.
“There has to be a balance between property owners’ rights and quality of life of those who are living in the surrounding area,” Miller said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.