Success stories

How Washoe County, NV, Created Modern STR Compliance In an Established Market

calls to 24/7 hotline
ID rate
Over 600
permitted STRs
ordinance compliance
Modernizing A Second Home Haven
A longtime haven for second homes and vacation tourism, Washoe County, Nevada, had a history of making residency ordinances with varying levels of success. When the County Board of Commissioners revisited the need to create new ordinances for short-term rentals in Washoe, they used Granicus’ Host Compliance software to help identify listings and enforce new policies.

The Politics of Ordinance Building

The timeless splendor of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the water playland of Lake Tahoe make Washoe County, NV, an ideal location for both tourism and second home ownership, thanks to its proximity to San Francisco, Reno, and other large regional cities.

Chad Giesinger may not have been in the Tahoe Basins for as long as the mountains that surround it, but with 21 years of experience as Washoe County’s Code Enforcement Planning Manager, Giesinger has seen his fair share of the fluctuations that tourism brings to the area and the problems that can arise with short-term rentals (STRs) as a result.

“I’ve been around long enough where we started, stopped, started, stopped, and then finally adopted an STR ordinance,” said Giesinger. “We’ve had a couple previous attempts at it.”

The nature of the rental market in this destination lends itself to STRs, he added, as communities such as Incline Village were developed from the outset as tourist destinations.

“The majority of the homes up there have always been second homes,” said Giesinger. “And they’ve probably always been rented this way. But now it’s more widespread with people coming and going. After the rise of listing platforms, it was so much easier for people to do this sort of thing.”

While listing platforms, such as Airbnb or VRBO, have made connecting homeowners and possible short-term renters much easier, the resulting rise in STR tourism has created new problems that communities find themselves forced to address. Where in the past individuals might privately list their second home for rentals, or keep access limited to friends and acquaintances, online STR platforms have created a trend toward “party houses” that can create noise complaints or other safety issues for residents in the community.

“For years you’d see the same people, at least that’s the sense I have of it, who would come and stay at places over the years,” said Giesinger. “But over the last few years as manager for code enforcement. I’ve seen an increasing number of issues with weddings, parties, or things like that being run out of these big houses.”

“But it was really difficult to prove that the code was being violated because we didn’t have a way of permitting legitimate properties,” he continued. “And that was one of the issues that would come up when we would go to the administrative hearings when people would challenge the code enforcement case.”

A way to address the issue appeared in 2014 when the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority adopted amendments to their ordinances allowing tax collection from transient occupancies such as STRs. But while larger cities such as Reno and Sparks have yet to amend land codes in order to better regulate STRs, Washoe County clarified conflicting county code provisions in 2019 to establish the basis for collecting this regional tax.

The next step was to create an ordinance that would help fairly manage STR ownership and make clear the requirements for compliance. But Giesinger said that one early roadblock was from the County Commission itself.

“There hadn’t always been support on the County Commission as a whole for the idea,” he said. “Our board has been pretty conservative over the years. And so they’ve always viewed regulation is bad and that the free market should fix the issue.”

The politics of the issue created momentum for action on both sides of the aisle, Giesinger added, so he placed an emphasis on researching codes in other areas, especially in Nevada cities, as well as meeting with county stakeholders from the Sheriff’s office, fire department, and General Improvement Districts, alongside realtors and the business community. From there, the group began a public outreach process of workshops held throughout the area. With frequently hundreds of attendees, the events provided a way to create workgroups from which ordinance language was crafted thanks to involvement from diverse areas of the community.

“We had a pretty solid ordinance put together,” said Giesinger. “But then the adoption process got a little rocky. Our first board hearing, they didn’t adopt it, and they kind of reversed course on a few things. So we went back to the drawing board on that. But we finally got it to the point where we had enough votes at the board.”

Over three months, Giesinger worked to craft an ordinance that could address the issues of STRs in Washoe. And by Spring 2021, he had one approved.

“Depending on who you talk to, I think at the end of the day, it was viewed as a pretty fair and open process even by the opponents who were really diehard anti-STR folks,” he said.

Now came the next part: Identifying non-compliant STRs.


Providing the Data to Increase Compliance

Giesinger said that he looked to Granicus’ Host Compliance solution while developing the ordinance to make sure that tools were in place to not only better understand the scope of short-term rentals in Washoe, but to help implement the ordinance.

“It seemed like the most established service out there in the industry at the time,” he said. “We wanted that data about available properties while we were developing the ordinance, and we were monitoring it as time went on all the way through adoption. And now we use it, of course, to implement the ordinance. So it’s one of our ways of finding listings and people that are listing who don’t have a permit.”

While Washoe created its own solution for enforcement and collections, Giesinger said that Host Compliance plays a critical role in collecting information from the county’s hotline where residents can report potential non-compliant properties.

“That’s really important because we like to funnel complaints through there to separate out our normal land use complaints,” he said. “A lot of jurisdictions have this notification requirement that requires the responsible party be notified within 30 minutes of a complaint. The Granicus tool has helped us make that much easier. We’re able to upload data with contact information and an automated text message goes out to the local responsible party.”


Keeping Pace with a Changing Market

The impact on compliance under the new ordinance has been virtually immediate, said Giesinger, with a newly-established compliance position kept busy working with property owners. While the permit fees associated with the ordinance was not designed to be revenue generating, he said that the fees have helped establish a new position dedicated to the compliance.

“The position is funded from collections that have come from increased compliance with permit fees,” said Giesinger. “We’ve always got plenty of work to do in the compliance arena. But in terms of compliance rates, I would say it’s pretty high. Most of the people that we open up cases on end up complying. They end up getting a permit or fixing the listings, or they take their ads down, whatever the issue is.”

At the same time, Giesinger added, those who didn’t want to meet regulations have just left the market, an equally positive result of monitoring properties for compliance.

“One thing that people didn’t entirely understand is that once you have STR permit that you’re subject to the occupancy standards, no matter who’s staying there, whether you’re using it or the renters are using it,” he said. “Because there’s just no way to make that distinction because we would have to ask for rental contracts from everybody, it would be unmanageable.”

With over 600 permits to date and a compliance rate recently as high as 78%, Giesinger said that the not only has enforcement improved, including being well prepared to win two appeal cases, but that it has allowed expansion into conducting building and fire inspections on properties.

Since implementing the compliance hotline with Granicus, Washoe has had nearly 500 calls regarding properties. After an initial surge, however, Giesinger said that declining numbers show the impact of the ordinance as well.

“It’s kind of dropped off as time has gone on, as would be expected,” he said. “We’ll get a big uptick around holidays like the July 4. Although we’ve been surprised recently that we haven’t seen as many complaints as we thought we would after this past Fourth.”
And even for someone who has been in the community for as long as Giesinger, the impact of the new host compliance monitoring has revealed some surprises.

“I didn’t expect to find so many STRs not in the Basin,” he said. “Actually, one of our first cases was a house out in the country. And we were just startled to learn that people were doing that out there. But I guess there’s a market for rural Airbnbs, too.”

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