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Won't you be my neighbor? Alumna's research investigates attitudes toward short-term vacation rentals

When Indigo Courtney looks out the window of Savannah’s Purrvana Café and Cat Lounge, she feels a swell of pride.

A cobblestone sidewalk in one of Savannah's historic districtsThe café, located in Savannah’s Starland District, is among other shops and restaurants that cater to a crowd that’s different from the city’s tourist-heavy River Street. For example, Courtney says when she worked at Purrvana over St. Patrick’s Day, she didn’t see the throngs of green-beer-drinking tourists from the café’s corner windows.

“I would say it’s definitely more quiet here, and on St. Patrick’s Day, it was definitely more quiet,” she says. “I felt like a lot of families who didn’t want that crazy River Street experience were over here.”

As a result, Courtney’s view of tourists in the Starland District is more positive than that of someone who lives in some of Savannah’s other historic neighborhoods, where carriages and trolleys abound—and open-container laws do not. In a city where only a handful of neighborhoods allow short-term vacation rentals, attitudes toward them can differ sometimes block by block, says Emily Yeager (PHD ’18), a graduate of Warnell’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management program who is now an assistant professor at East Carolina University.

Her dissertation, published last fall in the Journal of Travel Research, studied Savannah residents’ attitudes toward short-term vacation rentals and found that opinions changed depending on how residents interacted with visitors. 

More commonly known as companies such as Airbnb, VRBO or HomeAway, short-term vacation rentals can have polarizing effects in communities. But attitudes can change, even block by block or neighborhood by neighborhood, says Yeager. In Savannah, the rise in short-term vacation rentals overlaps with an already thriving tourism industry. The city has adjusted ordinances governing the location and process of permitting short-term vacation rentals, but other laws, such as open-container ordinances that promote a party atmosphere in some neighborhoods, can change how residents interact with tourists.

Emily Yeager“For example, the northwest portion of the city has a high concentration of bars and carriage tours. If you asked people who lived in this area’s historic districts, they are proud to have Airbnbs in the neighborhood, but the answer is less positive than in the southwest corridor,” says Yeager. “On the other hand, the Starland District is a new district that’s developed in the southwest portion of the vacation rental zones. There’s an art scene and boutique coffee shops, and if you asked people there if they were proud, it’s a lot different. They are very excited about vacation rentals.”

Yeager’s study was unique in that it was the first to look at the support or opposition of residents toward short-term vacation rentals. She credits her advisor, Bynum Boley (BS ’06), with encouraging her to pursue the topic.

“It’s an interesting finding that psychological empowerment had a direct relationship on support for short-term vacation rentals,” says Boley, an associate professor in the parks, recreation and tourism management program. “If residents felt their neighborhood was on show, and if they felt visitors were there because their neighborhood had some sort of unique cultural or architectural value, then they are likely to support short-term vacation rentals.”

Yeager says she learned a unique method of surveying residents from Boley and associate professor Kyle Woosnam, which resulted in knocking on more than 2,000 doors. The research also dovetailed nicely with her doctoral program—she is a graduate of the Integrative Conservation Ph.D. program, which emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to research.

“If I hadn’t had their guidance, I wouldn’t have known to do this survey methodology, which is one of the best you can do,” she says. At the time, when she started her doctoral program, short-term vacation rentals had only been around for about six years. There was research on residents’ attitudes toward tourism, as well as impacts of short-term vacation rentals on the hotel industry, but nothing connected residents with the burgeoning short-term rental industry.

“We know from research that if residents aren’t happy with tourism, they’re going to take action politically—or they’ll just be rude to your guests. And that’s not fun for anyone,” says Yeager. “But Bynum saw the value of doing cutting-edge research, and I wanted something that would be a challenge. We weren’t doing the same old project that had been done over and over again, and he was open to making it a challenging experience.”

Yeager completed her dissertation and was offered a faculty position at her undergraduate alma mater, East Carolina, before she even walked in her graduation ceremony. She laughs when she realizes how closely her career trajectory parallels that of her advisor, Boley, who returned to his alma mater, UGA, after receiving his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech.

A North Carolina native, Yeager is now turning her research toward rural communities and examining attitudes there toward short-term vacation rentals. While Savannah is a tourism draw for its arts, history and food scene, Yeager has found that rural towns have a lot to offer in terms of natural resources.

“We have tons of water; if I could describe eastern North Carolina in one word, it would be water—tons of rivers and creeks and sounds and the ocean,” she says. “So, a lot of vacation rentals are popping up on these waterways. Or, they are also advertising hunting or hiking opportunities—you can hike through estuaries and see these beautiful landscapes and ecosystems that maybe you haven’t experienced before.”

In Savannah, impacts of short-term vacation rentals overlap with concerns about gentrification and affordable housing. These concerns exist in rural communities too, says Yeager, but so far she’s found residents there are more concerned about losing their sense of place.

For example, riverfront properties are being purchased by nonresidents, and “no trespassing” signs make locals feel unwelcome. Or, community members who once felt comfortable with fishing off of any dock on the river now feel excluded—despite a tradition of anyone being able to fish from private docks. “It’s anything from, do you wave at people when you’re walking by on the street, to how possessive you are of your property,” she says. “I’m still working on the project and I’m hoping to have a few more revelations as I’m moving forward.” 

The bottom line, adds Yeager, is that communities can benefit from local ordinances that reflect community attitudes toward short-term vacation rentals, even to the extent where laws change to reflect specific neighborhoods. Online social networks can also be incorporated into a city’s sounding board, as residents are more likely to express their experiences in an online format rather than a public listening session.

Ordinances governing short-term vacation rentals could be viewed as a Russian Matryoshka nesting doll. For example, in Savannah, the outer layer is the three historic neighborhoods where the rentals are allowed. “But then you can have neighborhoods within those districts,” she says. “The power of Savannah’s laws are really at the neighborhood level, and it’s something I’m looking forward to as a next step.”

At Savannah’s Purrvana Café, Courtney says she sees a range of Savannah—and its tourism. She lives between downtown and the Starland District and gets “the best of both worlds.” 

Short-term vacation rentals also affect Courtney’s bottom line: She’s a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design and occasionally works for Airbnb by taking photos of rental properties. She admits that downtown is one vibe, while Starland offers another perspective.

“I’ve been to a couple rentals in the Starland District,” she adds, “and I’d say it’s definitely a relaxed vibe.”

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