**Editors notes: We published this story before the vote held by City Council on June 28th. Council voted unanimously to adopt the rules.**
At the May 26th City Planning Commission Public Hearing, several amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance governing short-term rentals (STRs) were proposed. You probably know them as “Airbnbs”, but STRs are defined in Norfolk’s zoning ordinance as “The provision of a dwelling unit, or any portion thereof, for rent to a guest(s) for fewer than 30 consecutive days as a principal use, known as a vacation rental, or as an accessory use, known as a homestay.”
So what changes did the City Planning Department recommend? Well…
Standardizing STR definitions across all areas of the city
The STR is a vacation rental if the building is not the owner’s primary residence; it’s a homestay if it is their primary residence. For example, getting a beach house for a week is a vacation rental; renting a room in someone’s house for a place to sleep and stash your stuff while traveling is a homestay.
Under current regulations, vacation rentals and homestays are classified differently within the city, depending on the residence’s Character District location. The new rules create uniformity across the city, and STRs in all Character Districts will hold to the same standards.
Requiring a conditional use permit (CUP) for all larger dwellings
There’s a lot to unpack with this one. A CUP is a permit with more strings attached than for something permitted ‘by right’ – think of it as a “yes, but” situation. So yes, an applicant can operate a vacation rental(s) in their building, but they have to meet additional requirements to ensure that it doesn’t become a nuisance.
For multifamily dwellings, ALL units must be registered for use as vacation rentals, though they don’t have to operate as such; this is to eliminate the administrative nightmare of tracking which individual units in a building are working as STRs. Furthermore, the applicant (typically the building owner) must notify all existing tenants that one or more units in their building may operate as a vacation rental.
Also, in the proposed amendments, “larger dwellings” will mean any building containing four or more bedrooms, regardless of whether it is a single-family or multifamily dwelling. Under the current regulations, the CUP conditions only apply to single-family residences containing four or more bedrooms or to a multifamily use containing four or more dwelling units.
Permitting STR operations in larger apartment buildings (up to 24 dwelling units) in the R-C zoning district by CUP
The maximum number of STRs a building can have in most zoning districts is nine; in the R-C (Residential Coastal) district, the maximum is 24 (upon issuing a CUP).
Extending the registration period for multifamily STR operations to as many as ten years through the CUP process
All multifamily buildings must get a CUP to operate STRs. For multifamily buildings in which some units are STRs, all units must be registered as STRs even if they do not serve as such. But if more than two units in a building are STRs, the building owner must apply for a Transient CO. To get this CO; they will likely have to make significant improvements to the building, which requires time and money. Therefore, the city could grant an operating term of up to ten years to secure loans to make said improvements. City Council decides the length of each CUP on an individual basis.
For context, STRs are not required to register with a city, preempted by state law. But Norfolk incentivizes STR registration by granting a permit to operate by-right for two years. If an STR chooses not to register with the city, they must get a CUP (much more of an ordeal). Fun fact: the city currently has about 215 STR units on the register, with another 250-300 units operating without registration. Many of these unregistered units are under active enforcement.
Requiring a new transient occupancy certificate of occupancy (CO) for all multifamily STR operations (3+ dwelling units)
Under Virginia’s building code, a building utilizing two or more units as STRs is considered a “transient occupancy” rather than residential use. A change of use requires a CO to ensure that the property meets all building and zoning codes; therefore, the law now requires a new CO for any building owner wanting to rent out multiple units as STRs.
Multifamily buildings with STR units are considered a transient occupancy use rather than a hotel use because not all the units within necessarily operate as STRs. Operators can offer units as STRs or “regular” long-term rentals, depending on what renters need. The city limits hotel stays to less than 30 days but does not do so with STRs.
Adding new performance standards to address parking, security, refuse collection, and other common STR issues
You know those times when your neighbor is having a party, you can’t find parking on your block, and guests are lounging in the stairwell and fire escape talking in their outside voices, music bumping, walls shaking, and you have to get up early the next morning? Or did some chaos goblins leave a bunch of trash in the yard or street? Or someone’s car is blocking your driveway and making you late for work? These are common plights suffered by people living near unregulated STRs.
The city is adding new performance standards to STR permits to address these nuisances:
- For vacation rentals, operators must provide guests and neighbors with a point-of-contact who can be on-site within 20 minutes, at any time, to address complaints
- Assurance that guests will not block any driveways
- Remote entry for all guests and change access codes between stays
- Security cameras facing the parking area and all exterior common areas, with footage stored for 30 days after a stay
- Interior decibel meters to monitor noise levels
- Ensuring that waste is correctly disposed of and containers returned to their enclosures within 24 hours after collection.
- For condo units, written permission to use the unit as an STR must be obtained from the condo association (good luck with that).
These standards apply to STRs needing a CUP for at least the past 12 months, and through the proposed amendments, they will also apply to STRs that register by-right.
The proposed amendments standardize the definition of vacation rentals and homestays across the city; increase permitting and safety requirements for STRs in multifamily buildings, and introduce higher performance standards for vacation rentals. These changes will go a long way in making STRs better neighbors in their communities.
Catie was born in Norfolk and as an adult has lived here for two years and change. She has a master's in Environmental Planning and Design from the University of Georgia. She likes hiking, playing trivia, being a flaneuse, pinball, memes, and growing vegetables.