It’s been an ugly year for short-term rental property owners in Arlington, with a looming Jan. 31 deadline that could shut down some of their leases. Nonetheless, about a dozen STR owners turned party animals during a recent Holiday Ugly Sweater party, celebrating the season despite an uncertain future.
Everyone was welcome to attend the BYOB, says Jeremy Fenceroy, president of the nonprofit Short-term Accommodations for Residents and Tourism (START). Yet there were no anti-STR guests present — meaning that things didn’t get any uglier than the hideous sweaters.
Partiers pushed tables together to eat lasagna family-style while discussing the politics of STRs. But the festive mood grew somber as Fenceroy gave an overview of the year’s events, detailing how Arlington City Council members voted to create a zone that bans STRs from operating out of single-family residential zoned homes that are not located within an area of the city’s entertainment district.
“They passed it just before the election,” says a business owner, citing the most recent City Council election in May. The business owner, who asked not to be named for fear of being blackballed, also expressed concern that Arlington’s family-friendly image might take a hit.
The new ordinance also limits the number of guests to two per room plus two and imposes a 10 p.m. curfew on outdoor gatherings, something Fenceroy, a retired Air Force combat pilot, believes crosses the line.
“We have always argued for reasonable regulations, but infringing on constitutional rights, property rights and freedom to assemble, due process and equal protection under the law are not reasonable,” he says, adding that an appeals court decision in November struck down similar STR regulations in Austin.
Arlington spokesman Jay Warren wrote in an email that, “at this time, there is no discussion regarding a need to revisit the limitations that were enacted by City Council earlier this year.” However, days later, during a Dec. 17 council work session, District 1 council member Helen Moise asked for a report on STRs to see if the city’s current ordinance may need revision.
Under the ordinance, all non-permitted STRs were to discontinue operations on Oct. 1, with the exception of those that had registered for hotel occupancy taxes prior to April 23. Those could operate until Jan. 31.
Arlington spokeswoman Susan Schrock says 88 complaints pertaining to STRs operating without a permit were filed with code compliance during October. In September, eight complaints had been filed for the same reason.
“It should be noted there is likely a margin of error (unknown percentage) on this because before the program began there was a chance that calls were entered as ‘other,’ ‘unpermitted land use’ or a few other subtypes.”
At the ugly sweater party, all the serious STR talk was tempered by the gaudiness of Fenceroy’s overstuffed, Santa Claus sweater and laughter was shared as several guests reminisced about attending an anti-STR meeting covertly as spies.
As the property owners weighed their options, trying to muster up hope along with a plan B, some bantered about possible litigation. Others talked about a very vocal anti-STR group — which one partier described as mostly “old farts” in North Arlington, an area represented by Moise, who is serving her first term.
The partygoers appeared to glean hope from the heavy turnover of Arlington’s City Council since the enactment of term limits. Still, they’ll soon be looking at being banned, getting a permit, if they can, or facing fines of up to $2,000 per day. Other options include selling their property, leasing long term or setting stay minimums at 30 days. They say moving their STR operation to a nearby city will land them on the “naughty list” as out-of-town investors.
STR property owner Brad Herbert explained how he’s paid hotel occupancy taxes on his rentals and rearranged his life based on something that was completely legal at the time.
"I’m supporting my family,” Herbert says. “I’m trying to support my kids, raise my kids, take care of my wife who has medical conditions … and now they take it all away.
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“We know we have to ban together. We want to figure out solutions for this because this is just terrible. If the government can dictate who comes into our homes and for how long, what will they take away from us next? I’m not trying to say the sky is falling, but the sky is falling. They are dictating who can come into our homes. They’re doing it right now.”
On that note, Herbert offered that he’d brought enough liquor to talk STRs all night but was ready for the white elephant exchange and ugly sweater judging. For the white elephant exchange, guests had either brought a gift or something that had been left at their property by short-term guests. Herbert ended up scoring a snazzy pair of size-12 dress shoes someone had left behind; one guest selected the same bottle of booze he’d brought to the party as a white elephant gift; and STR owner Shokor Jawshan, whose holiday sweater was voted ugliest of all, danced and partied into the night.
Every now and then people will party at an STR too, Herbert says, but for the most part, they aren’t diving off diving boards naked and streaking across lawns.
“They’re going in, staying in and spending their money in Arlington,” he says.