Norfolk tightens enforcement on those operating unregistered Airbnb rentals, with more changes to come

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — In an effort to entice more short-term rental operators to register with the city, costly penalties could soon be imposed on non-compliant properties.

It was one of several changes Norfolk City Council made on Tuesday in a bid to better manage the growing industry.

Short-term rentals are defined as “accommodations” in which rooms or the entire unit are rented for less than 30 days. Even though 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 business license to pay municipal and state taxes each time someone pays to stay in the house or apartment — just like hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts.

Many owners use services like Airbnb and Vrbo to advertise that 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 that many people are not signing up, according to George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director.

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

“In order to get some of the violators’ frequent flyers to comply, we need to do a better job of getting into their pocketbooks,” Homewood said, during a presentation to city council last week.

Going forward, a civil penalty for a first offense will cost the owner $200, and each subsequent offense will cost $500. Virginia Beach instituted a similar fee structure last month.

Until now, offenses surrounding short-term rentals could result in a summons to the criminal court.

However, it was the other changes made by the council that led councilor Tommy Smigiel – who represents an area with many short-term rentals – to cast the only dissenting vote.

Going forward, legally operating a short-term rental will require a different process depending on the location of the property, its size and its use.

For those who wish to use their personal residence in most of the city, they can rent up to five rooms with no more than two people staying there once they have obtained both a business license and a permit zoning across the city.

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

If they own the property just to use 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 obtain council’s blessing council in a process that can take at least two to three months.

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

“I don’t think that solves the problems,” Smigiel said. “Everything we do at the end of the day continues to confuse people.”

Smigiel, along with Councilor Andria McClellan, said they did not understand why those with larger properties were subject to a longer process, as they had not received any complaints.

Vice Mayor Martin Thomas, who represents Willoughby Spit, stepped in to say he could ‘introduce you to an entire street in Willoughby’ which has been overwhelmed with tenants of a large house who stay up late and party late at night night.

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

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

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