With City Hall closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several members of the Duluth City Council aren't keen on taking up a controversial ordinance Monday night that could more than double the number of homes converted into short-term rental vacation getaways.
The proposed ordinance will be up for its second reading and a potential council vote Monday. If passed, the ordinance would lift the current 60-property cap on licenses for vacation rental units, raising the limit to 100 this year.
In subsequent years, that cap would continue to climb annually by 10% of the previous limit or by 10% of new housing units that had been added to the local market in the past year — whichever number proves smaller. The total number of vacation rental licenses to be issued would ultimately top out at 175, likely by 2026.
The Duluth Planning Commission voted 5-2 in support of the proposed changes in the vacation rental policy, but the council will have the final say.
Critics have warned that allowing vacation rental properties to proliferate will eat into the city's housing inventory for residents at a time when the market is already quite tight.
"We are currently weighing the needs of underhoused, working-class citizens of the city against the desires of comfortable investors, many of them from the metro area, I suspect," Troy Hanson said during the public comment period at a previous City Council meeting.
"With the housing shortage being an undeniable fact, why is the Duluth City Council currently entertaining actions which will actively worsen the situation?" he asked.
Councilor Joel Sipress said he shared similar concerns and had been working to bring forward an amendment to the proposed ordinance in conjunction with councilors Roz Randorf and Janet Kennedy.
"In light of the current situation and to relieve workload on the city attorney's office and just because this is a big, important and somewhat complicated issue, we held back from moving forward with our amendment," Sipress said. "Instead, we're going to be asking for us to table this on Monday, so we can deal with it at a better time under less stressful circumstances."
Since Mayor Emily Larson declared a coronavirus emergency, City Hall has been closed to the public, with council meetings to be livestreamed via the city website and broadcast by public access television.
That arrangement is not conducive to healthy spirited public debate, according to Randorf.
"I do want to be sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of people who have some opinions on this one. So, to be able to hear that and respond to that, I think is important," Randorf said.
Councilor Zack Filipovich suggested COVID-19 concerns also have people preoccupied at present.
"I think people are very busy with other items — their families and making sure everyone in their lives is safe. They're not particularly thinking about planning issues in the city of Duluth. So, I do want to be cognizant of that with issues that might require a lot of public input, as this particular issue does," he said.
Filipovich stressed the importance of the council taking its time and giving thoughtful consideration to any potential changes in the ordinance.
"When I was council president, we discussed this particular issue at great length, both before and after. But it keeps popping up, because we haven't perhaps got it right," he said. "So, let's make sure to take the time to get it right this time, so hopefully it doesn't come back to this council for major revision."