By Abigail Hall

It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma. A sea of crimson marches from parked cars and tailgate parties on Boyd Street, men with beers overflowing in their hands banter about the game ahead of them in the Palace on the Prairie while children run around laughing in their Sooners sweatshirts. 

A weekly tradition from September to December, Boyd Street itself is closed to vehicles as thousands of OU football fans gather as a community to eat and drink before heading to Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium to cheer on the beloved Sooners football team. 

The stadium seats over 86,000 people, some of which call Norman home, but many drive from across the state, and beyond, to attend the game and stay in town for the weekend events. 

The influx of tourists in Norman, a suburb of 123,000 as of 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, for OU game days used to mean an influx in hotel use — but over the last few years, this has changed. 

Many OU fans now avoid traditional lodging options, instead opting to stay in short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, an app that allows people to share their homes with traveling guests, who pay a fee per night to stay in a room or rent the entire house. 

Airbnb has been a controversial topic of conversation since their rise to popularity in 2008. What started as a way for a few roommates to make a little extra money by renting out rooms in their apartment to conference-goers in San Francisco, is now a thriving enterprise with seven million listings worldwide in 100,000 cities, according to its website.

While hosts and travelers across the globe have responded in kind to the business model, the cities they reside in are struggling to come to terms with the alternative lodging option.

Several popular tourist destinations such as Barcelona and Paris have outlawed the use of the app in order to prevent residential neighborhoods into temporary lodging districts. Other destinations such as Santa Monica, California have come to agreements with the company to operate within the city based on Airbnb maintaining the terms of the city’s ordinance and removing listings that don’t abide by those rules. 

“Nationally no city was prepared for this,” said Jeanne Snider, Norman assistant city attorney. “The share economy has changed things and all cities have been looking for ways to pass an ordinance that best fits their city.”

The traditional model of temporary lodging such as hotels are defined as a rental of less than 30 days and are taxed by the city, Snider said. Short-term rentals operate similarly to hotels, and often are more appealing to tourists because the cost is cheaper than the alternative and offer more unique and personal experiences, according to Harvard Real Estate Review

The issue, Snider said, is short-term rentals do not collect the hotel-motel tax for the city like hotels do.

“We want the licensing fee and we want the hotel-motel tax,” Snider said. “If you’re going to rent it out like a hotel, we want (the) tax hotels collect.”

Additionally, in Norman the current zoning laws prohibit businesses to be located in residential neighborhoods, making short-term rentals illegal within city limits, said Kate Bierman, 1st Ward council member. 

“Cities tend to be somewhat reactive to disruptive technologies — it’s simply the gears of government grinding slower than the gears of innovation,” Bierman said. 

While Airbnb has been operational for more than a decade, Norman’s city councilors didn’t begin to discuss the issue until February 2018 when the company contacted the city with a proposal to collect the hotel-motel tax on behalf of hosts operating in Norman, Bierman said. 

“We realized that we could not take them up on that offer to collect the hotel-motel tax because we did not have an ordinance that allowed them to legally operate within city limits,” Bierman said.

Since 2018, the council has met in a conference meeting once a month with Snider to research and draft a city ordinance to regulate short-term rentals operating within the city. After almost two years of this process, Snider said she hopes the finalized draft ordinance will be proposed and voted upon by the council by late January 2020. 

Today there are 200 short-term rentals operating in Norman illegally, 79 percent of which are single-family homes where the owner does not live in the residence, Snider said. Yet, despite the lack of an established ordinance, there has only been one reported complaint.

“We’re finally close,” Snider said.  “I don’t anticipate any trouble…it’s just getting it done because citizens have had legitimate concerns, but I’ve always understood (their concerns), so I’m just ready to get it goin.’”

Bierman said the biggest issues the council discussed were how many short-term rental licenses would be allowed per person or entity, the potential disruption of neighborhood character and aesthetic, as well as collecting the hotel-motel tax from all short-term rentals.

For some members of the council, the increased use of Airbnb over hotels, particularly for game day weekends, is an issue. 

“We’re losing money,” said Bill Scanlon, 6th Ward council member.

For Scanlon, the issue with short-term rentals is that it puts the city at a financial loss due to the decrease of visitors staying in hotels, preferring to stay in a short-term rental, which affects the city’s hotel tax revenue.

Council members Lee Hall, 4th Ward, and Stephen Holman, 7th Ward, agreed the tax-revenue issue should be a priority in the ordinance. Additionally, Holman said he didn’t understand why the public would prefer to stay in a short-term rental over a hotel.

“I’ve never used one,” Holman said. “Seems weird. Plus, hotel showers are nice.”

Bierman said some council members were concerned about allowing an individual or entity to purchase entire areas in a residential neighborhood to rent solely as short-term rentals, and thus short-term rentals should have higher regulations than other businesses. 

However, Bierman felt strongly that short-term rentals should be considered businesses and should be regulated as much as any other business.

“We don’t put that limit on any other type of business. You can own as many liquor stores as you like, you can own as many rental properties as you like, you can own as many hotels as you like — so why would we limit the number of Airbnb’s that you can hold licenses for?” Bierman said. “Really, the crux of the issue is, is an Airbnb more comparable to a rental property or more comparable to a business? And that’s really the grey area that we were trying to navigate.”

Bierman said at a conference meeting on Nov. 26 the council agreed that an individual or entity will be allowed to apply for four short-term rental licenses, with an individual property application fee of $150 and a $50 inspection fee. If an individual or entity wants more than four short-term rental properties, they will be required to apply for a special use permit, which the council will review and approve or deny.

Bierman said the council reserves the right to deny any applicant based on failure to provide the proper documentation, a failed inspection, complaints from the applicant’s neighborhood and more.

Snider said at the Nov. 26 meeting she was authorized to draft the finalized ordinance, which the council will vote upon in the new year. 

Once the ordinance has been approved, Bierman said the City Clerk’s office will notify short-term rental business owners of the new licensing process outlined in the ordinance, and they will be required to submit their property for an inspection. 

Some of the licensing requirements agreed upon by the council that a short-term rental host must hold appropriate property insurance and documentation about city ordinances such as noise levels, parking and trash and recycling days; notify neighbors that the residence is an Airbnb and provide a local contact to respond to any issues at the property within one hour, “which means they must live in the OKC metro area,” Bierman said. 

“This is not a unique situation that Norman finds itself in,” Bierman said. “But my hope is that we are not being overly restrictive on an industry that has clearly found a niche and there’s clearly a market for.”

Colin Krapff, a Norman resident and independent contractor for the oil and gas industry, and his wife Nina, have hosted an Airbnb in a small studio apartment near Crawford and Dawes Streets in Downtown Norman since September 2018. 

At the time, Krapff and his family lived in the main home on the property with the studio apartment in the backyard, which they rented out as a full-time rental property. In 2018, when Krapff was forced to evict the tenant and update the space with all new appliances, he said he decided to market it as a weekend get-away for OU football fans and other tourists.

“(I thought), ‘Hey, let’s try this short-term rental thing since we’re just on the cusp of football season.’ And that was going to be my test period, basically the last four months of the year, to see how it did and then re-evaluate if I should turn it back to a long-term rental or continue with Airbnb,” Krapff said. “And it did exceptionally well.”

Krapff said his studio is booked 17 to 20 nights a month, with increased bookings for football game days, graduations and other university events. Additionally, Krapff said game day weekends are booked months in advance.

Krapff said he recommends local eats and shopping spots to his out-of-town guests, who often walk the three blocks from the Airbnb to Main Street, exploring and patronizing local shops that they otherwise wouldn’t if they stayed in a hotel.

“I think the best part for me is it gives me a chance to show people what the City of Norman’s all about,” Krapff said. “Because of that location it really pushes people to try out those local places as opposed to hotel chains like Embassy Suites, Holiday Inn — they’re over there by all the chain restaurants — which, is still putting money in the community, but compared to supporting local business, I mean — you really can’t beat our neighborhood.”

Krapff said he would be supportive of a city-wide ordinance and would have no issues paying an annual license fee.

“I think it makes sense if we’re helping bring people into the community and keeping more money local, and even helping the city out in that regard to let us do that,” Krapff said. “I think it’s a win-win on both sides.”

Krapff said his property’s neighborhood is a “pro-Airbnb” area, with three to four fellow Airbnb listings on the same street, which he thinks is due to the layout of the properties, many of which have secondary studios and garage apartments that “allow for a good Airbnb culture.” 

“I know there are some that pop up in what I would consider more traditional neighborhoods,” Krapff said. “And I think it can rub neighbors the wrong way just for having more traffic in the neighborhoods, and maybe seeing people that don’t recognize every day in their community.”

While Krapff understands the negative perception of Airbnb rentals, he sees it as a positive for his family and community. As a host, he encourages community members with concerns about the issue to find a host and start a conversation.

“Sure, some (hotel) money will go locally to taxes, but most of that money is going to go to (a) private equity group or large corporations running these hotel chains, and is not going to stay circulating in Norman,” Krapff said. “In reality, it’s actually benefiting your community — it provides a good, steady income stream for my family and that money is being spent with people who live in your community, which in turn is going to be continued to be spent within that community.”

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