Local government officials like to argue that “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”
The general concept is a good one, in that far-off officials in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C., are less concerned about what goes on in your hometown and less able to craft policies that fit local customs.
But there’s a flip side to this maxim. As a longtime reporter who covered cities and counties in California, I’ve learned that local government officials can at times be more meddlesome and hazardous to our rights than politicians and bureaucrats in other places. The locals know where you live, after all.
That’s why a state bill that just passed a Utah House committee by a 13-1 vote is such a welcome approach. House Bill 253 reinforces the rights of Utah residents to rent out a portion of their home without much interference from local government. It also bans the locals from engaging in a nefarious form of snooping.
For instance, The Spectrum & Daily News reported last week on a Bloomington resident who made around $1,000 a month renting out a basement room on a short-term basis. He was earning some extra money and providing a nice service to tourists. Neighbors didn’t complain, but the man argued that code officials learned about the rental through a website — and then sent him a letter threatening fines and even criminal charges.
It’s bothersome to think that city officials are spending their time perusing short-term rental websites, such as those run by Airbnband HomeAway, looking to arrest people who aren’t causing any harm to anyone. H.B. 253 still allows local governments to pass all manner of laws regulating homeowners who rent out their entire homes on a short-term basis, but it forbids Utah cities from using such ordinances to fine or prosecute property owners solely for listing their rental on a website.
Local governments object to the bill because they naturally oppose any limits on their power. But our entire political system is based on checks and balances. Each branch and unit of government has limits on what it can do, in order to protect the people from governmental overreach. The House bill is a great example of a state that’s protecting the people’s liberties by putting some modest limits on lower branches of government.
The short-term rental business is booming because it benefits property owners and visitors. People in tourist-heavy St. George should understand the value to the local economy of keeping the city as friendly to tourists as possible. Problems sometimes arise with such rentals. But problems arise with homes of all types. I’ve lived near long-term renters and even homeowners who misbehave and cause neighborhood problems.
City code-enforcement officials should spend their time policing residents who cause problems – not perusing websites looking to fine people who aren’t causing any problems at all. The key is punishing what economists call “externalities” – i.e., impositions on others’ rights – rather than pre-emptively banning or overly regulating a peaceful activity.
Fortunately, the Utah Legislature and the bill’s sponsor — state Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman — are providing a template that should be followed by other states. The state Capitol may not be the government closest to the people but, in this case, it’s the government that can serve the people the best.
Image by sevenMaps7