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Disabled Rexburg man finds opportunity, income through home-sharing services

Disabled Rexburg man finds opportunity, income through home-sharing services

Dustin Hurst
September 21, 2016
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September 21, 2016

A decision to shut down home-sharing services such as an Airbnb and VRBO within city boundaries would close the door on opportunity for several Rexburg families.

But if Mayor Jerry Merrill and councilors pursue that course, their votes could create a new job for city resident Brock Higham.

“I would probably run for mayor,” Higham quipped. “Definitely. I would.”

Higham, owner of The Raspberry Garden apartment complex in downtown Rexburg, counts himself among a number of city residents whose livelihoods could be harmed by the council’s actions on home-sharing.

Through the past few weeks, city leaders have tussled over the issue after receiving a handful of complaints about people who rent their homes, apartment units or spare bedrooms through short-term rental services, such as Airbnb and VRBO.

City leaders sent letters to home-sharing hosts in late July and throughout August asking them to cease their operations. City zoning code, officials contended, banned short-term home-sharing in low-density residential zones and restricted the practice in medium-density areas.

Because his three buildings at The Raspberry Garden lie within a medium-density zone, the city contacted Higham about the problem. He was among the lucky ones; his zone allows short-term rentals but requires planning and zoning officials to approve the arrangement.

Higham applied for short-term rental approval shortly after he received the letter. That application required a $450 fee, plus a hearing in front of the zoning board.

He had good reason to apply: Higham is disabled. He and his wife, Natali, increasingly depend on rental income.

“I am really disabled,” Higham told IdahoReporter.com. “I have a very difficult time walking and talking. So, I am unemployable.”

To generate income, he decided to offer some of rooms in his apartment buildings on Airbnb while renting others long-term.

“We found Airbnb is a job that I can do,” he said. “I can communicate with guests, which is a often a full-time job, responding to inquiries and answering requests that they have.”

He also sought to use sharing to solve another government-created problem. City code requires apartments to offer two parking spaces per unit. The Raspberry Garden’s lot has 20 spaces, four short of what Higham needed to satisfy the regulation.

“So, I was just thinking that short-stay guests rarely bring two cars,” he said.

His intuition served him well. After renting rooms for short duration through FlipKey, Higham proved his hypothesis.

“Not one of our guests brought two vehicles,” he said. “So, that solved our parking problem.”

While Rexburg, a small but growing town planted among the rolling potato and wheat fields of Eastern Idaho, might not seem like a tourism destination, The Raspberry Garden has hosted hundreds of guests from across the world. Regional attractions, Rigby’s Bear World, the stunning Grand Teton Mountains or Yellowstone National Park, draw visitors in droves to the sleepy community of just more than 26,000.

Nate Mather, The Raspberry Garden’s general manager, raved about the arrangement and the guests.

“It’s been an awesome experience with the people,” Mather said. “We have nice people from all walks of life coming to experience some of Rexburg.”

While Higham trades messages with potential guests and handles reservations, Mather serves as the boots on the ground, accommodating tenant needs and refreshing rooms after departures.

If guests cause a ruckus, Mather usually addresses it. Those problems, he said, come rarely. Nuisance problems typically arise, he added, when guests don’t know all the rules.

“[Guests] are more than ready and willing to fix anything, but they just don’t know,” Mather said. “It’s up to us to regulate it.”

Home-sharing services such as Airbnb and VRBO allow for some self-regulation. The services allow hosts to expel unruly guests and rate them negatively for other potential hosts to see. The services also ask hosts to follow local regulations, pay taxes where applicable and be a good neighbor generally.

But Rexburg will soon decide whether the city should regulate or outright ban home-sharing for people like Brock Higham. City councilors and Merrill meet Wednesday night at City Hall to discuss the issue and take public testimony.

For his part, Merrill has indicated a willingness to examine and update zoning codes, rules written before the home-sharing phenomenon.

“We realize that the world is changing and we may need to alter some of our rules and regulations in a way that will have the least negative impact on family neighborhoods,” Merrill told IdahoReporter.com earlier this month.

He and his councilors want to find a path forward, he added, while keeping minds open.

“We are very open to ideas right now,” he said. “We are not necessarily really landing on one side or the other. There are two sides of the coin.”

Higham had scheduled his hearing before the planning and zoning committee for early October, but that meeting was canceled. He said city officials admitted they misinterpreted city ordinance. and will soon return his $450 application fee. 

With the issue in limbo, Merrill and the council face critical decisions. Rexburg Code Enforcement Officer Natalie Powell told IdahoReporter.com on Wednesday that Merill and councilors will hold a town hall listening session after they finish tonight’s regular business.

They won’t make any decisions tonight, she said.

Faced with a chance the city could harm or shut down their room-sharing, Higham and Mather urge a cautious, thoughtful approach.

“[Ending sharing] would ruin a business opportunity many people in Rexburg want to take advantage of,” Mather said. “It’s created opportunity for someone like Brock who has a disability. I’d be very sad to see it taken away.”

Mather suggests home-sharing critics step back, open their minds and experience Airbnb or VRBO before forming an opinion.

“I would invite them to be a guest,” he said. “Don’t criticize something until you try it for yourself.”

Higham suggested officials shy away from a top-down approach. “Central planning is never a good thing, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s always a big problem for those who have little influence.”

Would he really run for mayor if the city closes the door on home-sharing?

“I am disabled,” he said. “I have nothing better to do.”

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