Austin shifts into reverse on sharing economy
As a dynamic, tech-friendly city, it’s not surprising that Austinites have embraced the sharing economy. Yet recent actions by the City Council suggest that Austin may be about to take a large step backward.
It started with house rentals. Faced with a small number of so-called “party houses” – homes frequently rented out to large groups, often for rowdy parties – the council proposed an extensive set of new regulations of all short-term rentals. Some are merely symbolic, while others (such as frequent septic-system inspections) seem geared more toward increasing the cost of operating a short-term rental property, rather than resolving any legitimate issue with noise, parking or other social disturbance.
Yet it turned out that wasn’t enough. In November the council approved a moratorium on new short-term rental licenses for non-owner occupied properties.
Now the problem has spread to ridesharing. After an initially hostile reception, the City of Austin embraced ridesharing in 2014, implementing a sensible regulatory system that allowed companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to thrive. But as the one-year trial period comes to a close, some on the council want to impose new strict regulations on those companies as well. The proposed regulations, which passed out of the council’s Mobility Committee Nov. 16, include mandatory fingerprinting for drivers, as well as an annual fee.
These new regulations will hurt Austin. The city’s experience with ridesharing has been remarkably positive, especially during festival time. As someone who has experienced SxSW both with and without ridesharing, I don’t relish the thought of not having that option. Indeed, ridesharing literally has been a life-saver, with annual DUI arrests declining by 300.
Too much regulation could put an end to this progress. Last year, Lyft suspended operations in Houston due to intrusive regulatory requirements for rideshare drivers, while both Uber and Lyft temporarily pulled out of San Antonio after the city implemented burdensome new restrictions.
New restrictions on short-term rentals likewise will prove counterproductive. Nashville Zoning Administrator Bill Herbert recently described that city’s similarly strict short-term rental regulations as “a nightmare” that had put “a monumental strain” on enforcement staff. “I wish we would have never done it.” Making city code officials spend their time enforcing blanket regulations, rather than focusing on actual problem houses, will push otherwise law-abiding homeowners toward the black market, while doing nothing to redress legitimate complaints.
Trying to force the sharing economy into 20th century regulatory structures may be good for the owners of hotels and taxi monopolies, but it isn’t good for the ordinary Austinite.