Some island short-term rental owners are pushing the federal government to recognize their properties as eligible to provide transitional housing for people displaced by Hurricane Harvey.
Short-term rental properties aren’t likely to be approved, however, for safety reasons, a Federal Emergency Management Agency representative said. In the program, the agency provides displaced people temporary housing in approved hotels and motels.
The omission has angered many people in Galveston who rent their homes for short periods of time, typically less than 30 days. They argue the units are needed because approved hotels in the county are filling up fast.
“We’re just really kind of concerned,” said Ron Venable, short-term rental owner and vice president of the Short Term Rental Owners Association of Galveston. “We’re hoping FEMA can at least get itself back on the ball, so those people can have more options of places to stay.”
Starting Aug. 26, Hurricane Harvey inundated much of Southeast Texas with heavy rains, causing massive flooding across the area. Galveston was luckier than areas to the north, where thousands of people had to flee their flooding homes and now have to find temporary places to live.
Short-term rentals make up one-third of the lodging market on the island, tourism officials have said.
The rentals can’t offer the shelter assistance to people because they don’t meet the requirements of the U.S. General Services Administration’s federal travel regulation, FEMA media affairs specialist William Rukeyser said.
The regulation requires that all federal officials on travel business stay at approved accommodations. The approved places have to meet requirements set by the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990, which mandates the lodging has appropriate smoke alarms in each guest room and fire sprinkler systems in each guest room more than four stories off the ground.
If federal officials can’t stay at a short-term rental, people who were displaced by a natural disaster can’t stay there either, Rukeyser said.
“Those have to meet the same categories,” Rukeyser said. “They would have to be on a GSA list of safety and fire code.”
That argument is faulty because many short-term rentals are quality places worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Mary Branum, president of the Galveston association. The rentals also pay taxes to the city and state, she said.
“Short-term rentals are an international, well-known, accepted industry,” Branum said. “We are lodging. We pay hotel occupancy tax.”
Branum said the association hopes to get the rentals allowed to participate in time for Hurricane Irma, a major storm that began making its way up the western Florida coast on Sunday.
“If we can alleviate that issue with FEMA now, we’re helping another state,” Branum said.
From a humanitarian standpoint, short-term rental owners should be allowed to help out if they wish, Venable said.
“We just got sad when we couldn’t accommodate,” Venable said. “We know what a storm does, and we’ve all had to have places to live for the same reason. It was like it was our turn to give back to people in the same boat.”