City cracks down on short-term rentals with relentless team of officers

Data from popular short-term rental sites like Airbnb, Craig’s List and HomeAway all end up in this office.

Right now, there are as many as 1,600 short term properties in Charleston to rent online.

Thirteen hundred of those are illegal.

When the city passed a short term rental ordinance last year, it came down to one team to catch the lawbreakers.

Three officers cast a wide net across the city.

Charleston is now the only city in the nation that criminally prosecutes for illegal short-term rentals.

"Short-term" is considered under 29 days and anyone who advertises without a permit is doing so illegally.

But it's a moneymaker for property owners. Reports show earnings from AirBnB worldwide hover around $20 billion.

The head of Charleston’s new code enforcement team says a criminal conviction gives the ordinance it’s teeth.

But to prosecute, you have to catch violators first.

“Peter Buck, we like to call him our number one,” says a short term rental code enforcement officer David Spooner.

Buck digs into social media accounts.

Officer Shealy is good on the ground. He has an eye for small little details.

Then there’s Spooner, the compliance guy.

Compliance means Spooner checks on legal short-term rental units, making sure the owner lives on the property and is responsible for it.

This ordinance applies to homes across the city of Charleston's jurisdiction, not just downtown.

“First and foremost, your residence must be your primary residence, that is the biggest reason for having this ordinance enacted,” says Dan Riccio, Charleston’s Livability and Tourism Director.

The team started enforcing the ordinance last August.

“They are working on between 60 and 100 cases at a time,” says Riccio.

It's like a continuous stream of data coming from short term rentals. Data from popular short-term rental sites like Airbnb, Craig’s List and HomeAway all end up in this office.

“As soon as you put up an ad, we know," says Spooner.

They also get tips.

“Neighbors say, 'please do something.’ They don’t want to get others in trouble they just want the stuff to stop,” says Spooner.

That includes parking, noise and trash.

Investigators document everything, including license plates and keypads.

They build a watertight case that can end up in Judge Maloney's livability courtroom.

Each conviction carries a hefty fine. $1,087 dollars.

The enforcement team goes to court every two weeks.

“We've had 35 convictions and one dismissal at my request,” says Riccio. “We want to send a message this is the law now and you must abide by the law,” he says.

The city says this ordinance took two years of planning and it will take time to enforce.

The ordinance is 21 pages. Not light reading for potential renters, but definitely required.

All of this information, including the number of permits available, is on the city of Charleston's website.

If you have questions, Director Riccio says call the team.

They're available to help out.

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