J. Patrick Sutton Cases & Issues Blog

Can A City Ban STR's?

I have been working on short-term rental issues for 9 years, first in the context of deed restrictions, and more recently in the context of city ordinances. Until I saw some recent city ordinances which outright BAN STR's, I had sort of assumed that a City could, if it writes an ordinance carefully, ban STR's.

I've changed my tune. I've wracked my brain trying to see how a city — particularly a Texas city — can pick out one type of interest of land -- residential lease — and prevent an owner from allowing other human beings to stay at that land under just that one kind of possessory interest. Where I land is that it seems unlikely to me that any city will be able to prove that DURATION OF LEASE provides a rational basis for BARRING RESIDENCY. Furthermore, I think that the Legislature has already preempted cities from outright BARRING STR's — after all, Texas raises revenue from them by taxing them expressly. Could a city ban all hotels? Sounds absurd, right? The Legislature already regulates hotels and earns revenue from the Hotel Tax. How, then, can cities ban the very activity which the Legislature wants to allow?

The issues go deeper, actually, impinging upon fundamental liberty interests. People structure real property possessory interests in all sorts of ways, none of which are readily distinguishable from leasing when it comes to minimum duration of stay. The law allows these various ways of structuring possessory rights. Why would a tenant have fewer possessory rights than, say, the co-owner of an LLC?

As this issue heats up, I expect to see — and argue — very direct challenges to the very power of a city to ban STR's. Without action by the Legislature, my current view is that cities cannot do it. They can regulate many other aspects of real property use — nuisance, noise, occupancy (with an asterisk, since, again, the Legislature has already regulated that area) — but I strongly doubt they can bar a class of people from using property in the normal residential manner. Content may continue . . .

Ways In Which Texas Cities Trounce Property Owners' Constitutional Rights

Some anecdotes from real life:

  • The City of Austin issues a bed-and-breakfast license. Neighbors repeatedly call in the property for "renting for short terms." Meanwhile, the B&B is up and running and has bookings extending into the future. The City of Austin, on a Friday, revokes the B&B license, asserting it issued it "in error." On Saturday, Austin Code Enforcement officers descend on the B&B and commence issuing citations for "renting for short terms without a short-term rental license."

  • The City of Grapevine allows STR's for years and collects local short-term occupancy taxes from property owners who rent out their homes for short terms. The City tells owners there are no regulations in place for STR's. Many property owners invest in properties in reliance on their right to rent for short terms. A search reveals no ordinances which regulate STR's. Abruptly, the City of Grapevine announces that it is barring STR's effective in 45 days.

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The Consequences of Tarr v. Timberwood Park

After my client prevailed in the important Tarr v. Timberwood Park case in the Texas Supreme Court, the consequences have been exactly what Ken Tarr (and I) had hoped: the regulation of short-term rentals has moved to the community for a vote. All over the state, subdivisions and HOA's are instituting the amendment process to get restrictive covenants changed. Cities are considering or passing ordinances. So, instead of tricking and surprising people with strained interpretations of old rules, subdivisions and cities are enacting new ones. While there was a lot of grumbling about the Texas Supreme Court's refusal to act as the legislature on the STR issue, I think lawyers all over the state are telling their clients to move the issue to the voting hall instead of trying to harass people with unfair, expensive lawsuits.

Alas, if only that were unalloyed good news. Most of the action statewide is to ban STR's, though in varying degrees depending on bogus rationales — owner-occupied vs. non-owner-occupied, for example, or 25% of homes only. Those kinds of regulations present all sorts of problems and unfairnesses.

In addition, some of the amended restrictions I have seen are not very clear. Some of the city ordinances are not only unclear, but either draconian or outright unconstitutional. While I am heartened that people are exercising the vote, I am concerned that, as has happened in Austin, hastily-written or ill-conceived STR regulations are just going to generate more litigation. Good for lawyers, of course; bad for everyone else.

Also, I continue to believe that where owners already have a vested property right in renting a property for short terms, both constitutional and Texas statutory requirements forbid an abrupt taking of such rights. However, as I have blogged before, Texas law is not clear or settled in this area. That issue, too, is likely to result in litigation.

Perhaps the saddest part of the shift of STR regulation to local voting is that badly-written restrictions and ordinances still put the onus on individual homeowners to fight The Man. I've taken in many calls and had many meetings where I advised that a restriction or ordinance had serious flaws, but the time and expense to litigate the issues is too expensive for most ordinary homeowners to undertake.

Probably the right answer is for the Texas Legislature to regulate this area comprehensively. In that way, local ordinances will not be allowed to conflict with state law, and state law can be more carefully composed based on input from everyone.
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STR Article in Texas Tribune

I was interviewed as part of a new article in the Texas Tribune about short-term rentals. It's an informative summary of legislative and legal battles over the issue in Texas. I commend it to you. Content may continue . . .

Texas Supreme Court Rejects HOA ban on STR's

Today, April 1, 2016, the Texas Supreme Court denied the HOA's request for review of the homeowner's significant win in NBRC PROPERTY OWNERS ASSOCIATION v. CRAIG ZGABAY AND TAMMY ZGABAY, No. 15-0730. The Third Court of Appeals in Austin rejected an HOA's arguments that the deed requirement of "residential use" bars short-term rentals (i.e., that they are a "business use" of property).

This was an important victory for homeowner rights since the Austin Court of Appeals held that when deed restrictions are unclear, they must be construed in favor of property owner's rights and against the party seeking to enforce an asserted restriction. The HOA was essentially arguing that HOA's always win because they say so. The HOA's petition was briefed well and at length by both sides, so the Texas Supreme Court's rejection of the HOA's petition is significant. The HOA argued that the Texas Supreme Court should clarify the standards for interpreting deed restrictions. The Zgabays argued that it was pointless for the Texas Supreme Court to take the case since
no method of interpretation could yield a win for the HOA. The Zgabays' argument prevailed.

I have another all-but-identical case coming up in the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio. That's the
Tarr v. Timberwood Park HOA case. Similar cases are also pending in various trial courts. You would think HOA's would see the writing on the wall, but that's usually not their style. I suspect we'll continue to see them fight these cases in San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston to the bitter-end.Content may continue . . .

Welcome, SXSW STR tenants, to Austin: Police State

Austin is now a city where code police surveil ordinary people exercising ordinary property rights and going about their daily lives on their own land. Code officers train lenses on owners and tenants. They come onto the land and interrogate people. They stick lenses to window glass and shoot photos of people engaged in private, intimate activity. They issue code violations — believe it or not — for advertising on the internet.

Nosy neighbors peer through binoculars into private homes. They shoot photos of license plates and people relaxing in back yards and on porches. They confront and abuse tenants. They call in harassing, often false and extravagant claims. They stick their noses into the private affairs of human beings with lawful rights to occupy residences.

Welcome, visitors, to sunny Austin, Texas: Police State. Don't be alarmed when the code police and the neighbors knock on your door asking to explain who you are, where you're from, how many people are in your home, what their ages are, what you plan to do while in the home, and how long you plan to stay. It's all part of the Austin Experience.

I will be adding to the body of this blog over the coming days with a longer commentary and analysis of Austin's new STR ordinances and bans, including the various ways in which it may violate the Texas and U.S. Constitutions, along with a discussion of how a few elected officials have created an enormous new surveillance and enforcement superstructure that tramples upon fundamental personal and economic liberties.
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J. Patrick Sutton Cases & Issues Blog