growing pains

Everyone loves growth. People love it, cities love it, economies love it. Growth is the measuring stick by which we gauge success – for better or worse. Nashville is no different, and over the last decade our city has emphasized growth and tourism, largely at the prompting of interested parties, including primarily the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation and its CEO Butch Spyridon, among others. Driven by the cracking whip and rallying cry for room-nights, our city has seen a massive influx in both visitors and residents. We’re a popular destination – an “it” city. With growth, of course, comes change.

As with gentrification, though, so with growth: the accompanying change is all fine and well as long as it happens to someone else. And so, we begin to see a backlash: the NIMBY calls for regulation and curtailing of the symptoms of growth.

The latest target is Short Term Rental Properties (STRP), Airbnb and VRBO foremost among them. (Some) residents are not pleased with the influx of visitors, and the accompanying aches and pains. These STRPs are taking the brunt of the criticism – though unfairly, as I will argue shortly. A brief list of some of the background on the outcry and some proposed rule changes (thanks to Councilman Jeremy Elrod (@JeremyElrod26) for gathering these for me.

Don’t worry, no need to read them all – the tl;dr: (some) residents are complaining to their councilpeople and the media about bad behaviour – specifically (as far as I can tell) regarding noise and sanitation/waste from the increase in visitors. The predictable proposals involve extensive additions to metro codes for regulating property owners in offering their dwellings as STRPs. Unsurprisingly the complicated regulations are proving difficult (read: impossible) to enforce, resulting in more recent calls to have the Metro Police Department become responsible for enforcing these rules. This is, in a word, insane. Our police department has better things to be doing than becoming the intermediary in endless code/NIMBY/neighborhood disputes. Introducing them as enforcers would be a colossal waste of time/money, and would create a spectacular new intersection of police/citizenry ripe for conflict and tension. Even if it were feasible to train the police department on the tangle of rules, it’s unlikely that these rules will remain static. Regulation of innovation is an endless (and futile) arms race – imposing the added burden on the police of keeping up with the constant changes. It’s unreasonable to expect they’d have any chance of doing this job effectively, and it’s unfair to ask them.

If the proposed regulations are unenforceable, they are useless, and should be abandoned – particularly because they are a bad idea either way.

While these STRPs are being targeted as bad neighbors, the reality is that they are merely a symptom of what’s really going on. A popular city attracts visitors. Visitors like to stay near hip/popular areas. The appearance and popularity of Airbnb and VRBO properties in a given neighborhood simply heralds a more fundamental shift: that of a quiet, family neighborhood into a not-so-quiet, entertainment/urban neighborhood. This is no doubt unsettling to residents who previously thought of their neighborhood as a quiet enclave far from the hustle and bustle of city life.

I am sympathetic to this concern, but you can’t fight it. Nashville asked for growth and it got it – with both the good and bad that come with it. There’s nothing wrong with a call for neighbors to be neighborly, and property owners that are serving STRPs should be held to the same standards as anyone else, and where they are in violation of the law, they should be held accountable. Targetting STRPs specifically makes no sense, and only poses an onerous burden of regulatory complexity. The only complaints (that I’ve seen so far anyway), largely have to do with noise and waste management/sanitation (and, hilariously to me: people walking around). These issues are all already well regulated in the city codes, as far as I know, and don’t require any specific additional rules.

There are minor, relatively inconsequential reasons to perhaps license and document STRPs (though as you might imagine, I’m deeply skeptical), but I think it’s important not to ignore the real motivation driving this backlash. People don’t like STRPs because they represent a fundamental demographic change to their neighborhood. Our government can fight that, at great cost, and with an unpredictable (probably disastrous) outcome. Or, we can collectively grow up a bit, and accept that things change. Neighborhoods get popular and become dense. This drives up property values. Don’t like your neighborhood anymore? Adapt, or move.

For what it’s worth, as an anecdotal coda: I live in Lockeland Springs, arguably ground zero for the STRP explosion in East Nashville. My nextdoor neighbor (a ginormous victorian house) has three different offerings alone. I’ve never had one single problem with them that I wouldn’t expect given the area (and its increasing popularity) I live in. (Ironically the one disastrous airbnb related experience I’ve been party to was the opposite: at 3AM, a local drunk driver careened into and nearly totaled the parked Jeep of an Airbnb guest staying nextdoor. He was super nice and understanding about it, all things considered, given his trip to our fair city had just been ruined.)