Airbnbs are popping up all over Belleville — the city is trying to ‘get a grip’ on policy
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Airbnbs are becoming more and more popular across the United States, and Belleville is no exception.
It’s not unusual for City Council meetings to include votes on special-use permits for people who want to rent out their homes or apartments in residential areas on a daily or weekly basis.
But some owners don’t go through the permitting process, according to Cliff Cross, director of economic development, planning and zoning. They list their properties on Airbnb.com and start earning extra money without obtaining business licenses or paying the city’s 8% hotel-motel tax.
Another concern is that current housing and zoning codes weren’t designed to regulate Airbnbs, causing confusion on everything from safety inspections to occupancy limits to nuisance complaints.
“We don’t even really have a definition for an Airbnb,” Cross said. “Most communities treat it the same way they would treat a bed and breakfast, but a bed and breakfast is like your ‘Groundhog Day’ concept: ‘I live in my house, and I rent out a room, and I cook for you.’ Airbnbs are different.”
Cross was referring to the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray’s weatherman character stays at a traditional Victorian bed and breakfast with a motherly, apron-wearing host.
Airbnb owners may not live on the premises or even meet guests during their stay. Reservations and payments are handled online.
The issue came to a head at a City Council meeting on Feb. 6, when a neighbor made a public statement opposing a permit request for a proposed Airbnb on East C Street. Aldermen tabled the vote.
The city formed a special committee, which has until early April to come up with guidelines, likely in the form of a “short-term rental” ordinance.
“We’ve had many discussions about this,” Cross said. “The point I’ve made is, ‘We’ve got to get a grip on how we’re addressing Airbnbs,’ partly because of the hotel-motel tax and partly because this is a community that is trying to attract hotels, which in a sense could look at them as competitors.”
Cross also spoke of the need to create a “level playing field” for all businesses that provide lodging.
Belleville has the 50-room Town House Motel; a “guesthouse” at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows and a Super 8 motel, each with about 40 rooms; and four smaller independently owned motels. Officials have tried for years to get a larger, modern hotel built in the city.
Some of the smaller motels rent rooms by the week, according to Darrell Richardson, owner of the 12-room E.J. Motel on Illinois 15.
“I haven’t had a vacancy for half a year,” he said. “Basically, (my guests are) just people who are trying to make it by until they can get enough money together for an apartment, or workers who need something affordable while they’re working jobs in the area.”
61 listings in Belleville
The roots of Airbnb go back to 2007, when two San Francisco roommates came up with the idea of putting an air mattress in their living room and turning it into a bed and breakfast.
The following year, the roommates and a friend launched a website, then called Airbed & Breakfast, that functioned as a marketplace for short-term stays, particularly in saturated markets. The company charged a commission for each booking.
“(Airbnb) has since grown to over 4 million Hosts who have welcomed 1.4 billion guest arrivals in almost every country across the globe,” according to the company’s website.
The city of Belleville has issued 15 special-use permits for Airbnbs in residential areas since 2019, according to records the BND requested through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Two permits actually represent one Airbnb because the owner moved into her rental home next door and now uses her former home for guests. Five Airbnbs are operated by limited-liability companies, whose principals aren’t identified by name.
Special-use permits aren’t required for Airbnbs in commercial areas, including the downtown business district.
As of last week, the Airbnb website listed 61 properties for rent in Belleville, although it doesn’t specify how many are in city limits or commercial areas. These include homes (some identified as “cabins” or “cottages”), apartments, lofts, townhouses and rooms in houses.
Prices range from $32 a night for a “shared room” with a futon bed in an occupied home to $281 for an unoccupied, furnished four-bedroom home that sleeps up to 12 people. The latter has a large yard and 65 other amenities listed.
“I also have available vehicle for rental if needed during your stay,” the owner writes in the description.
Retiree Linda Weisenstein operates an Airbnb in a small German folk house at 626 E. Garfield St., which is part of Old Belleville Historic District. It was condemned before she renovated it several years ago. She’s the one who applied for a new permit after moving next door.
Weisenstein has hosted guests from throughout the United States, as well as Canada and Japan, for up to six weeks.
The home, known as “The Garfield Inn,” has exposed brick walls, a private garden with a gazebo, one bedroom, one bathroom, a kitchen with dishes, pots and pans and a living room with Roku TV, games and puzzles. The cost is $96 a night for a maximum of four guests.
Weisenstein is among the local Airbnb owners who have called for more city regulation.
“Everybody needs to be held to the same standards,” she said.
Weisenstein thinks Airbnb owners should be required to obtain business licenses, arrange for fire inspections and take other action to ensure safe and peaceful neighborhoods.
Weisenstein prohibits parties at her Airbnb. She greets arriving guests in person instead of using real-estate lock boxes, offers restaurant suggestions and other tourist information and encourages neighbors to call her with any problems or concerns.
“If a house is occupied by good people and families like I have, it makes the neighborhood more stable,” she said. “You don’t have an empty house. (The guests are) contributing to the community. They’re going to the grocery store. They’re going to restaurants. They’re going to the movies.”
Caught in the middle
The special-use permit request that Belleville City Council tabled on Feb. 6 came from Lisa Diserens, a real-estate agent, and her husband, Robert. They bought a duplex at 410-412 East C St. a year ago that contains a one-bedroom unit and a two-bedroom unit.
The Diserenses planned to renovate the duplex and use it for short-term rentals of one to three months.
According to Lisa Diserens, local apartment complexes filled up during the COVID-19 pandemic, causing a shortage of affordable places for Scott Air Force Base personnel and others to live while looking for homes to buy or working temporary assignments.
“Because Belleville has failed to write an ordinance for short-term rentals, they listed us as an Airbnb,” she said.
That put the Diserenses in the middle of the Airbnb policy debate. Because of the tabled vote, they can’t seek tenants this spring, even though the City Council’s Economic Development and Annexation Committee had unanimously recommended their permit approval.
The Diserenses estimate they have spent $130,000 installing a new roof, electrical system, windows, gutters, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and doing other renovations to the duplex.
“Most people are operating (Airbnbs and other short-term rentals) under the radar screen, and they’re not asking the city for permission at all,” Lisa Diserens said. “But I’m trying to do the right thing.”
City officials had suggested that the Diserenses apply for a permit for an Airbnb instead of a traditional rental duplex because it was likely to be less expensive to pay the 8% hotel-motel tax than to pay for inspections every time a tenant moved out, according to Cross.
Ward 2 Alderwoman Carmen Duco spoke in support of the Diserenses.
“I went out to visit the property,” she said. “They’ve done a lot of work and spent a lot of money. ... I don’t think it’s fair not to give them an opportunity that we have (given) other people.”
Melinda Hult, the neighbor who voiced opposition to the permit approval, told aldermen she has nothing personal against the Diserenses, but she feels an Airbnb is a “very bad fit” for the neighborhood, which is just outside of Hexenbuckel Historic District.
Hult is a former Ward 2 alderwoman and former neighborhood association president who helped get the neighborhood zoned single-family residence.
She pointed to the neighborhood’s boarded-up and burned-out buildings, aging infrastructure, rolling gun battle on North Charles Street three years ago, other crime and homelessness.
“Our neighborhood has problems,” she said. “The answer is not bringing in more strangers on a part-time basis.”
Hult read excerpts from newspaper stories about the negative consequences of Airbnbs, ranging from criminal activity to wild parties. She maintains that many guests aren’t properly vetted.
The City Council took a step toward Airbnb regulation at its Feb. 22 meeting, when aldermen voted to amend the hotel-motel tax ordinance to specify that it also covers “short-term rentals.”
These are defined as owner-occupied or non-owner-occupied single-family residences rented out for 30 days or less.
“The ultimate incidence of and liability for payment of the tax is to be borne by the (renter) who seeks the privilege of occupying the hotel or motel room, or short-term rental,” the amended ordinance states.
But Airbnb regulation goes beyond taxes and business licenses, according to Cross. It also involves zoning and housing codes, which provide rules on the construction, use, maintenance and inspection of properties.
Scott Tyler, Belleville’s director of health, housing and building, is among the city officials asking for more clarification on Airbnbs.
Housing department employees typically inspect rental units whenever tenants move out, according to Tyler. Most landlords offer one-year leases with renewal options. Some tenants stay put for five, 10 or 20 years.
Tyler believes annual inspections would be adequate for most short-term rentals.
“I can assure you, if an Airbnb gets rented out 100 times a year, we’re not going to inspect it 100 times a year,” he said. “We wouldn’t have the manpower, and it would be senseless because a piece of property doesn’t really change from day to day.”
Another factor is Belleville’s Crime Free Housing Ordinance, enacted in 2013. It requires landlords and property managers who rent out homes or apartments to do background checks on potential tenants, not to report the information but to raise their own awareness.
At the Feb. 6 meeting, Ward 1 Alderman Joe Hazel asked how often police are called to Airbnbs in Belleville. Cross responded that the city has had no major issues and that the company polices itself by asking guests to rate hosts and hosts to rate guests on the website.
“I am not aware of issues with Airbnbs,” Hazel said. “I don’t think the traveling nurses have too many parties.”
Hazel was referring to nurses who need short-term housing while working temporary jobs at local hospitals. Lisa Diserens also mentioned them as possible tenants for her duplex on East C Street.
Hult argues that no more special-use permits should be issued for Airbnbs until the city has developed a comprehensive policy that promotes safety, fairness and community goals.
“Clearly, we don’t have our act together as a city,” she said. “There is so much room for problems (with Airbnbs), and there’s no regulation. Belleville is not ready for this, especially in light of the fact that we’re trying to get a hotel, and this is competition for it.”
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.