Anonymous Website Touts Short-term Rentals

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Mike Blizzard
Mike Blizzard

Site Owner Responds to Request and Fixes Problems with VisitorsBenefitAustin.com

Updated Friday, June 1, 2012 5:02pm

The long-running struggle to find balance between owners who want to rent their property for short periods and neighbors who object to the problems caused by some short-term rentals continues.

The Austin American-Statesman’s story Monday summed up the situation in which the Planning Commission’s efforts to find an acceptable middle-ground have been unsuccessful, and both sides vow to continue the battle.

Amid this ongoing controversy, on May 21 an Austin-based company established a website that provides a way for people who support short-term rentals to e-mail a form letter to City Council members en masse.

The site was initially anonymous but The Austin Bulldog’s check into the website, VisitorsBenefitAustin, determined that it is being paid for by HomeAway, an Austin-based company with worldwide reach promoting short-term rentals.

A HomeAway policy paper submitted to the City of Austin last September states the company has 425 employees in Austin and another 470 worldwide and websites with listings for more than 625,000 paid vacation rental home listings throughout more than 145 countries.

Mike Blizzard
Mike Blizzard
Matt Curtis
Matt Curtis

People behind the website include Mike Blizzard, a longtime local political operative who now consults on creative projects and is currently producing a baseball documentary, and Matt Curtis, Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s former communications director who last December took a job as HomeAway’s director of governmental relations.

According to Personnel Action forms obtained from the City of Austin through a Texas Public information Act request, Curtis resigned his position as executive assistant to Mayor Leffingwell effective November 27, 2011. A press release issued by HomeAway on December 1, 2011, announced that Curtis had been appointed director of government relations. To see the forms and HomeAway press release, click here. (Updated June 1, 2011, 5:02pm.)  (This link is no longer functional.)

VisitorsBenefitAustin touts the economic advantages of short-term rentals through payment of hotel occupancy taxes that support funding for local arts organizations.

But theFebruary 22, 2011,city auditor’s report, the first review that included short-term vacation rental properties, stated, “We found that evidence strongly suggests that there are short-term vacation rentals operating in Austin that are not paying hotel occupancy taxes to the City” (as required by city ordinance).

In fact, an April 2012 Short-term Rentals Audit stated that specific ownership information could not be located for 600 (40 percent) of the 1,500 short-term rental properties identified through various websites.

Information supplied by the Austin Rental Alliance indicates that an increasingly large number of property owners are paying the required hotel occupancy taxes and revenue is increasing substantially.

At present, short-term rentals do not require registration, although that has been proposed. Registration is supported by both HomeAway and the Austin Rental Alliance, a volunteer organization “supporting guests, owners, managers and neighbors of vacation rentals in Central Texas,” according to its website.

Owners of short-term rentals “must demonstrate their tax compliance as a condition of membership,” the Alliance’s Joel Rasmussen said in an e-mail.

VisitorsBenefitAustin anonymous initially

Peter Nesbitt
Peter Nesbitt

According to his website, Peter Nesbitt is an air-traffic controller at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where he was transferred after reaching a settlement with the FAA in connection with a whistleblower suit. He lives in the Travis Heights neighborhood near the intersection of I-35 and Riverside Drive. Nesbitt’s dismay over a short-term rental house a few doors down from his home caused him to launch his own website, Austin Short Term Rentals: Friend or Foe in Your Neighborhood?

Nesbitt e-mailed The Austin Bulldog, stating he had exhausted his resources for determining who published a site claiming that numerous arts organizations support short-term rentals. Nesbitt claimed that at least some of these organizations had not formally given permission, and several organizations had been deleted since the site went up.

The website, VisitorsBenefitAustin.com, was minimal when first viewed by The Austin Bulldog. A home page listed the benefits claimed to accrue as a result of short-term rentals. A “Supporting Organizations” page listed 10 arts organizations. A “Take Action” page provided a form letter and space to add additional comments in an e-mail that would go to all members of the Austin City Council. The sender is to list a name, e-mail address, and zip code, and then check a box to certify “I am the individual named above, and authorize this site to send the e-mail above on my behalf.”

The Austin Bulldog used Network Solutions to search for VisitorsBenefitAustin.com and found the site was registered with Contact Privacy, meaning the site owner’s identity is kept confidential. However, that site provides a form for e-mailing the site owner and warns “that domain name owners are not obligated to respond to requests.”

Our message asked who is paying for the website, why it provides no contact information, why three arts organizations originally listed as supporters had been removed, and procedures for listing supporting organizations.

Mike Blizzard responded to The Austin Bulldog promptly via e-mail by forwarding a message he had just sent to Nesbitt five minutes earlier, that copied the members of the Austin City Council and Planning Commission.

“I have been advising HomeAway and some other interested parties on the STR (short-term rental) issue and did have a hand in creating the website, which they support,” Blizzard wrote. In an interview yesterday, Blizzard said he pays for the site and is reimbursed by HomeAway.

“There is certainly no attempt to be deceitful,” Blizzard wrote in the e-mail to Nesbitt. “The letters through it (the website) come from citizens who agree with the message and use it as a portal to contact their elected representatives. You do however make some good points about making the site more clear and it will be going through an overhaul to achieve just that.”

The site initially provided neither an indication of who publishes it nor any means to contact the site owner. After inquiries the site was changed to indicate it is supported by HomeAway. In addition, it now provides an e-mail address for contacts, and states that the listed supporting organizations “have all expressed concern or opposition to a ban or heavy restriction on short-term rentals.”

Today, Blizzard e-mailed an updated list of supporting organizations now posted on VisitorsBenefitAustin, including Austin Children’s Museum, Austin Creative Alliance, Austin Film Festival, Austin Film Society, Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Austin Music Foundation, Austin Studios (which is operated by the Austin Film Society), Austin Theatre Alliance, Fun Fun Fun Fest, Paramount Theatre and State Theatre (now known as Stateside at the Paramount). The Austin Theater Alliance is the umbrella organization for the Paramount and State Theaters.

Gone from the original list of supporting organizations are Ballet Austin and Conspirare. But added back were the Austin Film Society and Austin Studios, a result, Blizzard said in an e-mail, of the site changes.

In an interview yesterday, Blizzard said that “hundreds of people” had used the VisitorsBenefitAustin website to send messages to the City Council members, with no money spent on advertising the site.

HomeAway is an Austin-based company with worldwide reach promoting short-term rentals. Its website provides a means to search and review properties, contact owners regarding availability, sign a rental agreement, and make a reservation payment to the property owner. The site lists 526 Austin-area vacation rentals—none in Blizzard’s South Austin neighborhood, according to a map search of available properties.

Blizzard said there may be short-term rentals in his area, since not all use the HomeAway site for listings, and there is currently no registration process, which he “strongly favors.”

Problem in the neighborhood

Nesbitt lives at 1012-A Harwood Place, three doors down from a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom house that, according to its listing on HomeAway.com is equipped with hot tub, pool table, and 56-inch high-definition television.

“It turned-out to be a ‘party house’ that was rented nearly every weekend,” Nesbitt said in an e-mail. “Phone calls, e-mails, and meetings with the owner have gone nowhere, and the disturbances continue. I sought help from City Council, the Planning Commission, 311, 911, Austin Board of Realtors, the Austin Rental Alliance, and anyone who would listen. Eventually found myself working with some longtime activists who have been working to regulate STRs in the City of Austin.”

Rasmussen of the Austin Rental Alliance said in an e-mail “we’ve been working with the neighbors on Harwood Place as well as the property owner of the STR in question to do everything we can to stop and disturbances and change the owner’s behavior (or more accurately, the behavior he allows of his tenants).” Rasmussen said that the homeowner is not a member of the Alliance.

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.