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Former Rexburg Airbnb host: We can touch lives

Former Rexburg Airbnb host: We can touch lives

Dustin Hurst
September 8, 2016
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September 8, 2016

Lucas Handy had no plans to get rich renting out a spare bedroom in his spacious Rexburg home.

Instead, he and his wife Mary sought only to provide a place to stay for wandering travelers eager to see Yellowstone National Park or a non-traditional lodging solution for visiting parents of Brigham Young University-Idaho students.

Lucas is fond of the numerous guests he and his wife have housed through the room-sharing service.

“I can make friends with anyone across the world and offer them some of my resources at a super good rate,” he told IdahoReporter.com Wednesday.

Lucas, who works at nearby Madison Memorial Hospital, said Mary ran the Airbnb operation as a family side project.

“We didn’t really do it for income, we did it for fun,” Lucas said. “My wife did the work and I got to enjoy the company.”

The couple, who have a young daughter, earned some income from the venture. The first month, he said, they earned $120 from their $30-per-night room rental. The final month, he added, that number was in the thousands. Mary reinvested all the revenue into their Rexburg home, upgrading amenities as she could.

Lucas found more than money in sharing the room in his family home. He found new friends, exposure to different cultures and the chance to share something special to his heart: his Mormon faith.

“I’ve given away 17 Book of Mormons,” he said. “The experience is hands-down the best.”

He didn’t expect he’d fall in love with opening his home to strangers, 90 percent of whom he says hail from outside the U.S., but he’s now addicted. He wishes others would give Airbnb a chance because he believes it could do wonders.

“If we do this right as a people, we are really loving our neighbor,” Lucas said. “We can touch the lives of anyone traveling. If everybody wanted to open up a spare room and become an awesome host, Rexburg could change thousands of lives for the better.”

Those sentiments might resonate with his friends, neighbors and colleagues in the small Eastern Idaho town, which is home to BYU-I, a university owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Right now, though, Rexburg townspeople find themselves embroiled in a political flap not uncommon in cities across the country. With the rise of the sharing economy, families are increasingly employing non-traditional methods to share rooms, car rides or other items, often making money in the process.

The Handy family, like several others in the area, used Airbnb to share a vacant bedroom in their home.

They did, until they received a phone call in July from the city of Rexburg. The message: City zoning code forbids short-term rentals in low-density residential areas. Most single-family housing in the town, then, cannot offer rentals through Airbnb.

Lucas said Mary took the call, and immediately “felt bad” and removed the listing from the website. They don’t want to disobey the law, so they’ve ceased their operation.

But the family wants a change, as do many in the community. Yet, others think the town should conserve its quiet heritage and continue the ban on short-term lodging rentals. Since EastIdahoNews.com profiled the Handy family days ago, numerous Rexburg residents have taken sides and discussed the matter on social media.

Some worry that allowing the rentals will disturb the town’s peaceful, sleepy culture. They believe incoming guests will crowd residential streets with extra cars and disturb the peace with raucous parties.

Alternatively, some wonder if the city’s zoning codes intrude on private property rights, especially if guests come and go quietly and follow all other parking and nuisance ordinances.

Lucas thinks some in the community are “blowing things out of proportion,” though he’s trying to be a good neighbor and see opponents’ arguments. For his part, none of his neighbors have complained -- directly to him or to the city -- about the 27 times he has  rented out the room.

City leaders and officials have entered the fray. The Rexburg code enforcement office recently sent letters to a number of Airbnb hosts, asking them to cease their operations. Code Enforcement Office Natalie Powell told IdahoReporter.com many residents aren’t aware of the restriction and will likely follow the law once informed.

Seeking to quell some of questions about the rentals, Rexburg Mayor Jerry Merrill posted his thoughts on social media Tuesday night.

“I have personally visited with several people who have been renting rooms as well as some who have concerns about their neighborhoods and I have learned much that will help us as we try to come up with a workable solution,” Merrill wrote.

“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 he’s working hard to understand both sides of the issue. “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.”

Officials heard some feedback at a Rexburg City Council meeting Wednesday night, but the mayor hopes to fully address the issue at a later date, possibly as early as Sept. 21.

Merrill hopes to handle the situation quickly to end the growing tension among his constituents. He also hopes a quick end will prevent Airbnb hosts, who ignore the city’s overtures, from being fined for breaking the code.

Lucas and Mary Handy hope there’s a quick resolution, too. Lucas wants a middle-ground where he can continue renting the room in his home while still respecting his neighbors and their wishes for a peaceful co-existence. They should, he added, ask themselves if his rentals really harm them or infringe on their lifestyles.

“If I am, let me know,” he said. “I want to be an amiable neighbor.”

If the city can’t find a quick resolution, Lucas isn’t afraid to take an unusual step because he’s fallen so deeply in love with the Airbnb arrangement.

“I would do it for free if they will let me,” he said.

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