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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Cracking down on short-term rental scofflaws evaders

David Colburn
Posted 5/3/23

REGIONAL- In 2020, St. Louis County established a requirement that people offering their properties as short-term rentals had to obtain a permit for the business.Three years and multiple notices …

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Cracking down on short-term rental scofflaws evaders


REGIONAL- In 2020, St. Louis County established a requirement that people offering their properties as short-term rentals had to obtain a permit for the business.
Three years and multiple notices later, the Planning and Community Development Department has stepped up its efforts to bring the stragglers into compliance.
“The message was after that county board meeting three years ago that we were going to try to work with the people that have short-term rentals proactively to get them into compliance,” said department director Matt Johnson. “Last June, which would have been two-plus years after the ordinance was passed, we only had about 25 permits. People have been very good about not taking the letters seriously and doing their best job to not make eye contact with the department.”
The county issues short-term rental permits to properties that are not in a jurisdiction that has its own official controls on short-term rentals, such as Ely, Duluth, Hibbing, Virginia, and four townships surrounding Duluth.
To find those who would be subject to the permitting process, the county enlisted the aid of a service called Host Compliance, which searches listings on Airbnb, Vrbo, FlipKey, and other sites used to promote short-term rentals, Johnson said. The company generated a report of all such listings in St. Louis County.
Short-term rentals outside of their jurisdiction were eliminated, and then the process of contacting property owners began.
“We were left with 154 properties in St. Louis County that we think need to be permitted,” Johnson said. “That list was actually higher, but through a process of elimination of reaching out to properties, they said ‘We did this back in 2021, but we no longer do it,’ and we put them on an inactive list. There are others who say there’s some sort of mistake, they only rented their property for a month. We worked through to narrow it down to that 154.”
Johnson said the department sent out a couple of rounds of letters last summer.
We had some progress. We doubled our numbers,” he said.
But that still left a large swath of unpermitted short-term rentals, so the department intensified its efforts beginning in February. In a letter sent March 1 to a couple believed to be operating a short-term rental that was obtained by the Timberjay, the department notes, “This letter is the final reminder that you must obtain a permit.” The couple was instructed to submit their permit application with the required attachments and fee by March 15.
“Failure to obtain a permit and continuing to rent your property as a short-term rental will initiate the county’s compliance process,” the letter stated.
“We can turn this over to the attorney’s office if necessary,” Johnson said. “We currently have application permits for 75 properties, so just about half, but the good news is we have 49 short-term rental applications in the hopper. That’s going to get us to about the 80 percent mark. The last 27 properties we don’t have, and that math might not add up perfectly, 75 percent of them haven’t given us any sort of response and 25 percent have indicated that they’re working on an application. So, we have about 20 properties of the 154 that we really don’t know if they intend filling out an application or if they’re just simply trying to avoid it.”
While the department has been working from the list they had generated, Johnson emphasized that another important source of information about short-term rentals since the time when permits were first required has been citizen complaints.
“Many times, it’s the first that we are brought aware of a compliance issue,” Johnson said. “We don’t run around monitoring where we think short-term rentals are. It really is complaint driven. And by the time people are comfortable enough picking up the telephone to call, or send emails, they’re usually upset. Unfortunately, short-term rentals bring a lot of emotion.”
Johnson said he believes most short-term renters occupy the properties in good faith and don’t intend to create problems, but because they’re renting they don’t always treat the property as if it were their own. So, problems do come up. The most frequent complaint the department gets from neighboring property owners is about noise, Johnson said. The second highest is trespassing, such as when a short-term renter wanders over to use a neighbor’s dock. A third complaint is parking.
“You get a lot of these cabins around these lakes that are in high demand and they only have space for maybe a couple of vehicles,” Johnson said. “If you get six different people showing up in five different cars, that parking can spill out onto the road or into a neighbor’s yard and does that ever set off emotions. People just want to know whether or not things are permitted. We get a lot of curious calls. Their main role in calling is to find out if it’s permitted or not, and if it’s not they want us to force them onto a permit.”
Johnson noted that it’s not always easy to track down short-term rental property owners. Many of the owners live out of state and use short-term rentals as a way to generate money to make payments on their properties.
“Tracking down owners of properties can be challenging,” Johnson said.
Still, Johnson is encouraged by their progress. In a county of 7,000 square miles, he said, having only about 20 properties remaining to get to respond is “a real positive sign.”
“If we find that 15 of those are actually renting, then we will turn those over to the attorney’s office,” Johnson said. “I can’t imagine too many of them wanting to go to court. I would think that once they get turned over that most of those remaining properties are probably going to cave and fill out a permit.”