Crown Heights resident Denny Marlin worries that Airbnbs in his neighborhood will make it more difficult for families to find housing there. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Crown Heights resident Denny Marlin worries that Airbnbs in his neighborhood will make it more difficult for families to find housing there. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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Denny Marlin was out of town when the shooting happened at an Airbnb rental near his home in Crown Heights last April.

When he returned home after a weekend away, a pall hung in the air. One person — 20 year-old Elijah Davis — died as a result of the shooting. Three others were injured. 

“We were walking by one night right after it happened, and (Davis’) family had shown up,” Marlin said. “We could just hear his mother wailing in the backyard.”

Every time he walks by the home on Battin Street, Marlin said he thinks of the young man who lost his life there. Yellow flowers wrap around a stop sign pole at Battin and Second streets, with a sign reading “never forgotten” — one of two memorials nearby. 

After the shooting, Marlin and many of his neighbors gathered to discuss the incident and the future of short-term rentals in their neighborhood — the Airbnb where Davis was shot was not operating legally. The city doesn’t permit rentals for less than seven days in residential areas without a conditional use permit and on-site management. 

The neighbors also talked with the city and police, Marlin said. Last April, City Manager Robert Layton told The Wichita Eagle he would put together a task force to consider rewriting regulations for short-term rentals.

Nearly a year later, conversations around city policy for short-term rentals are circling back around. In early February, the city of Wichita presented a potential new licensing program for short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods to Crown Heights residents. While the idea is not yet a concrete policy proposal, some residents are concerned that licensing the rentals will increase the number in their neighborhood. 

Another frustration is that established homeowners associations around the city are increasingly banning short-term rentals from Airbnb and other sites. But many older neighborhoods don’t have these organizations and therefore can’t establish such regulations.

“So now we are at a disadvantage because we’re lacking the legal protections that exist in cul-de-sac neighborhoods and gated communities, things like that,” said Jason Kraus, who lives in Crown Heights.

A memorial sits at Second and Battin streets for Elijah Davis, who died in a shooting at an Airbnb last year. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

The license Wichita is proposing for short-term rentals

On Feb. 8, the city presented its suggestion to create a new licensing program for short-term rental units. 

The program would mean that homes in residential areas could be rented for less than seven days — a deviation from the current policy — if owners apply for and receive a license. 

“Short-term rentals do not currently require a license and can legally operate in residential areas if the stay duration is seven days or more,” wrote Scott Wadle, the director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department, in an email to Crown Heights resident Missy Cohlmia following the February meeting.

A search of rental website Airbnb shows that over 40 short-term rentals are currently operating in Wichita. Many do not specify a seven-day minimum stay. 

The licensing program would require short-term rental units to:

  • renew their license annually,
  • maintain $250,000 of insurance,
  • adhere to a “good-neighbor” policy, 
  • adhere to a maximum occupancy,
  • limit gatherings to 10 p.m., 
  • require an operator to be available 24/7, 
  • permit the city to inspect the unit.

The proposed licensing program would “prevent individuals/businesses who violate these requirements from operating short-term rentals in the city,” Wadle wrote in his email to Cohlmia. The program would establish fines of up to $500 per day, restitution and jail time, he added.

The licensing program suggested by the city is “very much a work in progress and not a proposal at this point,” Wadle wrote.

Why residents are concerned about Airbnb licenses

At least three Crown Heights residents who spoke with The Wichita Beacon expressed concerns with the licensing program for short-term rentals.

At the top of the list was that such a program would allow short-term rentals to proliferate and that it would be difficult for the city to regulate them. 

Marlin worries an increase in short-term rentals from Airbnb and other rental websites could create a more transient neighborhood, higher crime and rising rents. One study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the economic costs Airbnb imposes, including raising local housing prices, likely outweigh the benefits.

But Airbnb itself claims that its business has generated millions of dollars in local economies and supported thousands of jobs around the world. Stanley Longhofer, the founding director of the Center for Real Estate at Wichita State University, said that it’s not obvious that short-term rentals are always detrimental to residential neighborhoods. One study he pointed to finds short-term rentals generally raise housing values, which can benefit property owners but hurt renters.

Even if the city passes the policy, Longhofer doesn’t predict Wichita’s short-term rental market will explode anytime soon, since the city is not a major tourist destination. 

James Roseboro, the acting president of Wichita Independent Neighborhoods, added that most board members of his organization “do not see (short-term rentals) as a major concern.” But he said he understands the worries of Crown Heights residents about safety and thinks that regulations need to exist to monitor short-term rentals. He also pointed out that regulations around guns are just as pressing as those around rental homes.

“That’s the key there is the regulation of guns,” Roseboro said. “That’s more dangerous than having a house.”

The complexity of homeowners associations

A major frustration of some Crown Heights residents is that they are unable to completely ban short-term rentals from their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, newer neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city are able to do so. 

This is because many newer subdivisions in Wichita have homeowners associations, which are required by Kansas law to be organized as corporations. Older neighborhoods that are more central in the city tend to have neighborhood associations, Kraus said. These have no legal authority, while HOAs are statutorily permitted to adopt bylaws that apply to the neighborhood.

The Beacon spoke with representatives from eight homeowners associations in Wichita. Six of them said they either recently changed their bylaws to ban short-term rentals or had always banned short-term rentals. Some also banned long-term rentals. 

“Particularly after what happened in Crown Heights, I would assume that most of them did the same thing we did,” said Mike Moore, the treasurer of Abbey Homeowners Association in eEast Wichita. The association updated its bylaws after the shooting last year to prohibit both short-term and long-term rentals in their neighborhood. 

According to Rodney Wright, founder of HOA Management Services in Wichita, 100% of property owners in a neighborhood have to agree to participate to create an HOA. New developments can require participation in an HOA as a prerequisite for buying a house. But it’s difficult to get every property owner on board to create an HOA in already-established neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Cohlmia said. 

“After the fact, it’s not going to happen,” Cohlmia said.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.