Sen. Dawn Buckingham has hit the ground running during her first legislative session in Austin, authoring 68 bills and co-authoring another 24 so far.   

One of Buckingham’s co-authored bills is Senate Bill 451, a measure from Tarrant County Republican Kelly Hancock that would bar local governments from restricting the use of private residences as short-term rental sites. A short-term rental, according to the bill, “means a residential property, including a single-family dwelling or a unit in a condominium, cooperative, or time-share, that is rented wholly or partly for a fee” for any period short of a month.   

In Brown County land and homes are often leased to hunters, and Brownwood city attorney Pat Chesser said there are no local laws that restrict this activity.   

The practice has become much more controversial in bigger cities, like Austin, where websites like HomeAway and Airbnb often rent to tourists and visitors. In a February article about the bill, the Texas Tribune said that Austin laws have capped the number of short-term rental homes with no live-in owners.   

Some homeowners, the article said, were concerned about neighborhood houses being used effectively as hotels, and about the noise complaints and parking issues that sometimes arose.   

But HomeAway director of governmental affairs Matt Curtis said restricting short-term rentals won’t eliminate the industry — it will simply drive it underground. “What has happened over time,” Curtis said, “is that we’ve found municipalities around the country and municipalities in Texas have created a variety of regulations to address short-term rentals. Short-term rentals aren’t new. People have been doing this for a long time.   

“But as cities have started to create regulations to address it, a few cities have created regulations that are very onerous and burdensome, and have managed to drive the activity underground,” he said.   

HomeAway is a Texas company based in Austin that has specialized in short-term rentals since its founding in 2005. Recently purchased by travel giant Expedia, HomeAway’s website says it has over a million listings around the world.   

“I think the concept that Sen. Hancock is pushing for in Texas is to preserve Texans’ property rights,” Curtis said, “and to preserve municipalities’ ability to regulate the short-term rental activity without creating the regulations in such a burdensome way that it just drives the activity underground.”   

In an email, Buckingham echoed the desire to protect property rights with SB 451. “We believe this is a property rights issue that can be better addressed with local residential zoning regulations,” Buckingham said. “In Texas, we believe property rights are a freedom worth protecting.”   

Addressing concerns of noisy revelers using short-term rentals to party in residential neighborhoods, Buckingham said such activity can be dealt with under existing law. “You don’t need an outright short-term rental ban … to prevent nuisance code violations such as noisy neighbors,” she said. “These types of issues can already be addressed through traditional city ordinances.”   

Curtis said there’s no data to indicate that short-term renters are more likely to cause a nuisance complaint. “However, of course you have seen some celebratory cases around the country  every now and then,” he said. “But rather than create this disconnected patchwork of burdensome regulations, I think Sen. Hancock’s idea is, many of these nuisance regulations are already on the books.”   

SB 451 does state that local governments can create laws that regulate short-term rentals “only if the … municipality demonstrates that the local law’s primary purpose is to protect the public’s health and safety.”   

“There can be still some regulations to make sure those property owners understand the local nuisance regulations,” Curtis said.    

On Tuesday, SB 451 was left pending in the Business & Commerce committee after a hearing. Without an affirmative vote, it can’t move on to the full Senate. While its future is unclear, the passage of SB 451 would be a major victory for the online short-term rental industry, but also, according to its authors, for property rights in Texas.