AirBnb reports millions in earnings for local hosts as Wilmington City Council prepares to decide fate of whole-house rentals

No coffee shops will be allowed in the downtown historic district (Source: WECT).
No coffee shops will be allowed in the downtown historic district (Source: WECT).
Updated: Jan. 14, 2019 at 7:23 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Mayor Bill Saffo says it’s the most controversial issue the Wilmington City Council has dealt with while he has served.

Short term rentals, and the debate over whether or not to allow them, have been on the minds of city leaders for the last three years. On Jan. 22, the council will take up the final leg of the issue and decide if the city will allow whole-house short term rentals in residential zones.

In the days before the decision, the council and residents will have additional information to consider in the form of a report from short term rental company AirBnb.

One of the first to offer an internet-based short term rental portal, AirBnb reports more than 125,000 people used the service to stay in the greater Wilmington area in 2018. The five-county area includes New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender, Columbus and Bladen counties.

Those visits generated $19 million in total additional income for AirBnb hosts — the people who rent out their property on the website — with the average host bringing in an additional $10,000.

AirBnb spokesperson Ben Breit said the company is able to pinpoint down to the cent how much money a host earns because the transactions all come through the company, and that’s how they are able to withhold taxes.

Breit was not able to provide specific data about the activity within Wilmington city limits, but said the company works on a county-level basis for non-major cities.

Some officials, including members of the Wilmington City Council, were not impressed.

Council member Kevin O’Grady, who has been outspoken about his concerns and dislike of short term rentals, said he thinks the numbers are overstated.

“I think all of these numbers are pretty unverifiable,” O’Grady said.

Breit said he didn’t understand what O’Grady was insinuating, adding these are not estimates, but totals.

O’Grady has said he will vote against any measure to allow whole-house short term rentals in residential zones.

As opposed to a homestay where a room or two are rented out, a whole-house would have the owner of the home off the premises during the guest’s stay. This kind of short term rental is allowed in business and mixed-use zones, but the council has yet to decide on its use in residential zones.

Council member Paul Lawler, who said he is also leaning “no” on the whole-house issue, said to him it’s about the kind of place people want to live.

“This is really, when you cut away everything, it’s a very simple issue. It’s: ‘What kind of neighborhoods do we want to have? Do you want to have businesses around your home, or do you want to have neighbors around your home?’" he asked. "And I tend to go for ‘have neighbors around my home,’ because that’s what I want.”

Saffo said the short term rental issue has been the most divisive he’s seen in his time in office, and no matter what happens at next Tuesday’s vote, the issue is likely to continue.

“It’s going to be very difficult to enforce it, one way or another,” Saffo said.

The council is expected to consider an outright ban on whole-house short term rentals in residential areas, or a “cap and spread” regulation that would limit the overall number of units allowed in the city, and require a minimum distance between each.

The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 22 in the City Council chambers, and there will be a public hearing.

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