Gulfport’s new computerized code enforcement system for identifying short-term rentals is up and running.
City staff gave an overview of recent developments at the City Council’s June 20 regular meeting. So far, the system has been instrumental in bringing violators into compliance, they said.
“A facility containing one or more temporary lodging units, the occupancy of which occurs, or is offered or advertised as being available, for a term of less than one month, more than three times in any consecutive 12-month period,” is how Gulfport’s code of ordinances 22-2.02, defines temporary lodging.
Some residents have complained frequently over the past year about the inability of city staff to enforce that directive.
“We have never been instructed not to enforce an ordinance. Never,” said chief code enforcement inspector Mark Ottervanger. “What we’ve had is a difficult time doing it in the past. Thanks to the new software package [council] authorized, it’s made it much easier.”
City Map Shows Permitted Areas
Ottervanger displayed an interactive city map showing the relatively small areas where short-term rentals are allowed under the law. It includes permitted uses and conditional uses.
“Everywhere else? If they’re doing them, they’re illegal,” he said.
The City continues to operate a complaint-driven process, with residents required by law to give their names when registering complaints. Ottervanger said that when the City receives complaints, they get prioritized.
“Like any other work center, we have to prioritize our workload,” he said. “We cannot simply give everything a ‘Priority One’. We’re getting all kinds of different calls. We get calls from people out of state complaining about short-term rentals in Gulfport. We get people in Gulfport who are just ripping down the Airbnb website and trying to make 10, 12 complaints at once when they don’t live anywhere near them. So we have to prioritize our workload.”
City Residents, Nuisance Complaints Get Priority
Priority One goes to Gulfport residents complaining about a short-term rental that interferes with their life at home. Nuisance cases always get that priority level. When such a case gets investigated, staff members inspect that neighborhood as a whole, as they do with any other code enforcement issues such as high grass.
The lowest priority level included the out-of-state complainants and what Ottervanger called “sour apples” who are reporting 10-15 cases at once, Ottervanger said.
“We are going to take their complaints, but we have to prioritize our workload so we’re getting the most juice for the squeeze,” he said. “We feel that we are operating in the spirit of what we were directed to do by the council.”
The code enforcement office sends violators a notice with a compliance date, which is typically 14 days from the day of the notice.
“If someone rents that unit for a short term one more time after that compliance date is reached, they’re going to get magistrate papers,” said Ottervanger.
If a case reaches the level of a hearing, the special magistrate will also issue a compliance date and a ruling based on the evidence presented, which Ottervanger said will be substantial once it gets that far. Once the magistrate gives a compliance date, any illegal rentals after that are subject to a fine of $250 per day until they are back in compliance. This is true for the remainder of the year.
“The calendar starts again Jan. 1, but we are going to monitor them throughout the year to make sure they are doing what they say,” said Ottervanger.
Interactive Map Shows Rental Locations, Details
Code enforcement inspector Heather Wyble walked the council through a further depiction of the new software, showing some interesting numbers on the city map: 293 total short-term rental units, 14 new short-term rental units in the last 30 days, 477 total listings, and 466 total short-term rental listings. Wyble pointed out that the latter two numbers are high because a single rental unit listed on multiple online platforms will get listed repetitively.
“As of today we have 17 complaints that were given. Six have received their violations, and I can say all six have complied,” she said at the meeting. “Very encouraging. We do have four that are awaiting their compliance dates and seven that are in the process of an investigation.”
Wyble showed how she uses the interactive map and address dashboard to research the source of a complaint. By entering the property address, city staff can get an overview that shows who owns it as well as the timeline of activity, such as how many times it has been booked for a stay. The example on the screen at the council meeting, a portion of which was redacted, showed a violation regarding the number of stays in a certain time period.
The City sends each violator a notice with a compliance date as well as a copy of the City ordinance and a zoning map “so they know exactly where they stand,” Wyble said.
“The ones who have complied will be monitored for the rest of the time period, monthly through the beginning of next year, to make sure that they haven’t rented it less than 30 days. Overall it has been a very successful program.”
New System Easier, More Effective
Ottervanger said the new system is doing what the department could not do previously. He added that it has been successful in other places and can get defended legally if necessary.
“All of our information has been right on the money,” he said. “When Heather starts talking to these people, they’ve admitted to it over the phone. They know what they’re doing. They know they’re wrong.”
In nuisance situations, Ottervanger said he encourages people to call the police.
“If there is something going on that needs to be stopped right then and there, and it’s 10 or 11 o’clock at night, that is a police issue,” he said. “Follow up with a phone call to us. Leave your name and address, and we will pursue it.”
Ottervanger said any information resulting from a police call would be helpful to his office, and his staff would act on it.
Mayor Sam Henderson asked if the new software has made code enforcement work easier and more effective. Ottervanger answered enthusiastically in the affirmative.
“Absolutely. Without a doubt,” he said. “It takes a lot of the labor out of it. As a 26-year police officer, I hated telling a citizen, ‘You need to give me all of this before I can take it to the magistrate.’ It irked me that we couldn’t do it. But it was utterly impossible. This allows us to do it.”
Compliance, Not Punishment
Many times a violator will, upon notification, come into compliance and that’s the end of the story.
“Ultimately, our goal in code enforcement is compliance. Not hammering people, not fining them. Our ultimate goal is compliance,” said Ottervanger. “If you have to spank them with a fine, so be it. But if they comply all on their own, that’s great. Some of the ones Heather has marked ‘in compliance’ have year-long tenants in them now.”
“I hope everyone you catch in Gulfport finds someone who needs a long-term place to live,” said Henderson to applause from the audience.
City Manager Jim O’Reilly reiterated that the goal of compliance is based on the direction he received from council. He, in turn, conveyed that to his staff.
“If we can restore peace to a neighborhood that may have had problems before, reduce police calls responding to party houses, then it’s all good,” said Ottervanger. “It works for everybody.”
To watch all or part of the council meeting, click here.