The battle over short term vacation rentals is still on-going in parts of Savannah. One local man is facing a court date and says he’s willing to go to jail to fight the city for his right to rent a room in his home.
Certain areas have been approved for short-term vacation rentals in the city – generally mixed use zoned areas downtown – other areas have not. Some don’t think that’s fair and at least one Ardsley Park homeowner says the city has no right to tell him what he can do with his home.
Rabbi Arnold Belzer lives on Washington avenue and has been renting a room in his home through Air BnB -a rental website– even though the city began cracking down on that in strictly residential zones months ago. City officials say the crackdown is in response to neighbor complaints – part of an effort to preserve quality of life. City Spokesman Bret Bell says, “What we have cited Rabbi Belzer on to date – we found to be absolutely a violation of our ordinance – it was extremely clear that he was advertising you know – for people to pay money to stay at his house.”
After being called into court – the Rabbi says he stopped taking money from people staying in his home- but has been told that’s a violation as well. Bell explains, “The definition of a commercial operation is when there’s some compensation for a good or service sold. I don’t know the specific circumstance that Rabbi Belzer is describing there – but if he receives any sort of compensation – whether that’s monetary compensation or some sort of a trade or barter compensation or anything at all – receives something in return for someone staying at his house – then that constitutes a commercial operation.” Rabbi Belzer believes that infringes on his rights as a homeowner, “They’re telling you -you can’t have people in your own house when you have three empty bedrooms and you like to have guests – but they’re saying something crazier. They’re saying to you – you can’t have your relatives in your house if you take a bottle of wine. They’re telling you – you can’t have a couch-surfer – someone who stays here and weeds my lawn – that that’s illegal – that’s crazy. No court in the world has ever said that.” Rabbi Belzer claims he’s exempt from the ordinance, “I’m exempt because I have guests in my home on the basis of it being a religious obligation.”
Rabbi Belzer says he believes the city is harassing him and others who don’t live in neighborhoods where the practice has been approved, “Dwntown you can have a house – buy it for investment, buy four or five houses for investment and fill the houses up with 10 or 15 people – and that’s entirely legal. Now – you tell me – what really is the difference in a downtown neighborhood and this neighborhood….we have one guest bedroom – and it has a beautiful suite – and it’s no different than me having someone visiting.” Bell assures, “This is nothing personal against Rabbi Belzer – we respect his rights – his religious rights and we think he’s a true leader in the community – the only thing I can say is what we have brought him for court thus far on – is a violation of our zoning ordinance and then the judge issued a contempt of court for continuing to violate it despite her order.” And now the Rabbi says he’s prepared to face harsher penalties, “They can put me in jail – I think it’s worth it.”
The Metropolitan Planning Commission is currently looking into the issue. Rabbi Belzer says he has nearly 300 signatures on petition asking for a moratorium on the ordinance — but has been denied a chance to present that to council at the next meeting. City officials say they are expecting the M.P.C. recommendations in the next four to six weeks and the Rabbi and others will have a chance to present concerns during public hearings at that time.