A Long-Term Solution for Regulating Short-Term Rentals

When you’re tasked with regulating industries being disrupted left and right by Silicon Valley, it can feel like an uphill battle: private-sector startups are more agile and tech savvy than local governments. They’ll move faster, and government must find a way to adapt.

Take the case of Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms like VRBO and HomeAway. When they launched, they quickly earned thousands of users. Cities were left scrambling to react, parsing data on how short-term rentals might affect public safety, housing prices, tax revenue, and more.

It wasn’t long before cities and states started considering and passing legislation to regulate the industry just as they regulate hotels and other hospitality businesses. Today, cities considering short-term rental regulation include Baltimore and Tulsa, OK.

And recently passed legislation or updated municipal codes are already at work in the following cities:

When city councils pass new rules, regulatory bodies find themselves in the difficult situation of having to enforce them — often, without the benefit of existing permitting models.

The good news: disruptive tech has reached the public sector. Govtech nerds are building software that makes the process behind permitting new industries sustainable, reusable, and scalable. And government staff are finding new and innovative ways to use the technology. We were excited to find that our partners in a major city had started using our product Screendoor for their new permitting workflows.

Sharing Feedback among Stakeholders

Translating a new short-term rental law into a permit requires city staff to interpret legal language and juggle considerations from around the municipality, the city, and even the state. Insurance requirements, tax requirements, zoning regulations, HOA codes, and more all play a role.

Real-time communication among these many stakeholders is essential. We’re big advocates of prototyping, which means putting a working example in front of stakeholders as quickly as possible. A prototype can range from wireframes to high fidelity mockups to functioning software. In any case we find that its a quicker and faster way to build as compared to starting with a blank page and listing requirements.

Using this approach, government staff can begin to anticipate how a user will actually interact with a new business process and spot shortcomings before they’re live.

The outcome: Prototyping with configurable software saves time and ensures a more predictable result at go-live. When city staff have the ability to manipulate a prototype with functioning logic, it allows them to better anticipate user needs and expectations. Even once a form is live, there’s still room to improve the user experience. Our partners can test different versions of a form to see which performs best with users, based on how fully applicants complete tasks.

Simpler Communication with Applicants

In many cities, short-term rental permit requirements are detailed and complex. It’s not uncommon for regulators to require additional materials from people after they’ve applied. And applicants should be able to check the status of their application as it’s processed.

The most obvious channels for these communications — phone and email — can be disruptive and inefficient. Either as part of the permitting software or managed as a complementary process, the goal is seamless communication between applicants and regulators. Our approach is native messaging functionality that allows regulators to contact residents from within the system.

The outcome: When a permitting system tracks all communications within an applicant’s account (and provides timestamps), regulators can manage accounts more effectively. You can use a mix of automated, templated, and individualized communication to inform applicants efficiently. For example, setting up automated confirmation messages to let people know they’ve successfully submitted their application. Simple, one-click communications within those messages can enable applicants to request further information. Additional messages can be configured to update people as their application moves through the stages of approval.

These communications ensure maximum visibility into the permitting process and prevent unnecessary status checks.

Seamless Workflow Processing

Asking an applicant for additional materials is one thing. Finding a way to communicate with everyone on your team that you’ve sent the request is a different story. It can become even more complicated when new officials are elected or appointed to regulatory posts.

Even digital versions of “paper trails” can quickly become hard to maintain and almost impossible to interpret. The aim here is to integrate internal tracking tools into the permitting process, so that any person on a regulatory team can look at any application and easily understand its status: whether it’s been reviewed, what communications have happened between the regulators and the applicant, what its current status is.

The outcome: In addition to saving time and energy for users, transparency in workflow processing prevents a lot of frustration. It also instills confidence in future iterations of the regulatory team: now, no matter who transitions in and out of these positions, the history of what’s been done is easily and readily accessible.

Building for the Future of Cities

We’re always delighted when our software can help cities solve the challenges presented by new legislation and new technologies. We hope to build solutions that anticipate a more fluid future and are ready to evolve with cities as they adapt to that future. To that end, we love hearing from people in local government about the problems they’re trying to solve and the technology gaps they wish they could fill. If you’ve got a question or suggestion, please reach out!

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