NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Does truth matter when it comes to passing new laws on Tennessee's Capitol Hill?
An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered how a bill pushed by Airbnb is putting that question to the test. That bill would restrict Nashville's ability to regulate those short-term rentals that have turned some neighborhoods into hotels.
Reading the bills and watching the debates, NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered out-of-town lawmakers doing favors for special interests without seeming to understand — or, perhaps, care — how it might affect Nashville's neighborhoods.
REVEALED EXTRA: Witness falsely claims Metro would force short-term renters to stay home 15 hours a day
Among the residents who have experienced the negative consequences of Nashville's short-term rental boom are people like Tonya Goad, who describes being awakened on a regular basis by drunken bachelorettes and other tourists staying next door.
"I have a private terrace at the top of our townhome, and they've jumped the barrier, been on my private terrace early in the morning, playing music. I mean it's just, it's constant," Goad said.
The owner has a permit for an "owner-occupied" rental but, Goad said, he's never there.
"He does not live here," Goad said. "The last time I saw his car here was over a year ago, and it has out-of-state plates."
City officials say residency issues can be difficult to enforce, but the Airbnb bill would make it even more difficult.
A few weeks ago, that legislation appeared to have died in a House subcommittee.
Two weeks later, Airbnb popped up again in a Senate committee with a different bill and a new amendment, also designed to preempt some of Nashville's regulation of those short-term rentals.
This time, the sponsor, Sen. John Stevens from rural West Tennessee, had a whopper of an explanation.
Claim: Nashville plans 'to ban owner-occupied properties'
"The focus upon Nashville, it's my understanding, there's currently pending an ordinance to ban owner-occupied properties. So this is an attempt to preempt that action," Stevens said.
Metro Council member Freddie O'Connell called that a "complete lie."
Councilmember Bob Mendes agreed.
"That's just flat ludicrous. I don't know where that information comes from."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed up.
"And no one is talking about making any major changes?" we asked.
"No," Mendes insisted.
Still, Stevens' story worked, and Airbnb's bill got out of the Senate committee.
So where did Stevens get his information?
NewsChannel 5 Investigates tried to track down the Huntingdon Republican outside Senate committees, where he was presenting legislation, but he managed to avoid our cameras.
So we headed back to his office, where we struck out yet again.
We noted to Stevens' assistant, "I get the feeling he's trying to avoid us."
"Well, he probably has a right to," the assistant said with a laugh.
A few hours later, with that new bill heading for a vote in a House subcommittee, we watched as Airbnb lobbyist Michael Bivens waited, as his brother Brian Bivens carefully exchanged signals with their new House sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby.
And once again, the East Tennessee lawmaker would make claims that were just not true — as the Airbnb lobbyists quietly looked on, never setting the record straight.
Claim: 'This is only for the people who live in their dwelling'
"This is for the people who actually live and sleep, according to our TCA [state law], where their address is, where their voter registration is, right then and there," Faison told the subcommittee.
"So we are talking about people who are wanting to be able to rent out their mother-in-law or rent out the basement."
Later, Faison repeated that claim.
"They are not going to have crazy wild bachelorette parties where you live. This is to rent your mother-in-law suite out of your basement."
In fact, Nashville's regulations say "to qualify for an owner-occupied permit, the owner of the property must permanently reside at the property."
But the Airbnb amendment redefines owner-occupied to mean "used as a principal residence by at least one natural person" — it doesn't say owner.
And that person can actually be absent, as long as the "person has a definite intention to return" at some unspecified point in the future.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Mendes, "They define owner-occupied as being something where the owner is not required to occupy?"
"Yeah, it's classic doublespeak," said Mendes, who is a lawyer.
"The definition is of the term 'owner occupied,' then it says in the definition an owner doesn't have to live there. So they gut the meaning of owner-occupied with this bill."
Claim: Airbnb bill only applies to unattached structures
One subcommittee member wanted clarification of Faison's legislation: "We're talking about a structure that's not attached to the original property, is that correct?"
"That's my understanding," the lawmaker answered.
Outside the committee room, we asked: "You said this only applies to unattached structures. Where is that in the amendment?"
"I didn't say that," Faison said. "That didn't come out of my mouth."
Claim: Nashville could take action after three complaints
Current state law says a local government could revoke short-term rental permits after three violations, but the Airbnb bill says it could only be done after three violations in any 12-month period. City officials say violators can be hard to catch.
"If you get three complaints in a year, you've got an issue and Nashville should have the right to be able to say, hey, something's going on here," Faison said.
But, as amended, the local government could only take action if there are three violations in a year — and "the provider has no appeal rights remaining for any of the three violations."
Local government officials say that means a repeat violator could continue to operate by drawing out the process through multiple appeals.
Claim: Nashville stopped sending out renewal reminders
"Since Nashville stopped sending out permit renewal reminders this year, hundreds of otherwise grandfathered-in properties did not renew their permits in time, and the city refused to reissue their permits," Faison told the subcommittee.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Faison for documentation of that claim, but he never provided it.
In fact, as documented on its website, Metro Nashville never stopped sending out renewal reminders; instead, it switched from U.S. mail reminders to email reminders.
"While we initially sent these renewal notices via US mail, in 2021 we began emailing the notices not only to the property owner but also to the contact person as provided on the application," said Richel Albright, spokesperson for Metro Codes.
"Additionally, we email this reminder twice: 60 days and 45 days prior to the expiration. There is a 30-day grace period after the expiration date for renewal provided there are no documented complaints against the property.
"While other Tennessee municipalities do not send renewal reminders at all, Nashville permit holders now receive more notice than ever before."
What are lobbyists' responsibilities?
As we watched Faison misrepresent what the Airbnb bill would do to Nashville, we wondered: do the company's lobbyists really care as long as it works?
NewsChannel 5 Investigate approached Michael Bivens outside one committee hearing.
"Michael, is there any chance we can talk to you about the bill?" we asked.
"Not in the least," he replied.
We continued, "Your sponsors have said a lot of things that are not true. Is there no obligation to correct them?"
"We have spoken," Bivens said, walking away.
'Wish I would have got more'
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Faison, "How much money have you taken from the Bivens group?"
"Well, I've never taken anything from them. Taken is a strong word, Phil," he answered.
We noted, "$6,000 in campaign contributions from their PAC."
Faison claimed to have no idea.
"I didn't know they had given me $6,000 until you tweeted it yesterday or today. I was like, well, dadgum, wish I would have got more."
In fact, the Bivens lobbying team was among those special interests we saw hitting the pre-session fundraisers hosted by Republican leaders right before they got ready to do the public's business.
Faison heads the House Republican Caucus.
We asked, "The Bivens group helps raise money for your caucus?"
"Absolutely," he answered.
We pressed, "What does that say that you are turning to people who are trying to influence you for campaign contributions?"
"Who is trying to influence me?" Faison said.
Again, we asked, "You don't think they are giving thousands of dollars to try to influence you?"
"You didn't hear what I said a few minutes ago. I have no clue who gives me money."
In the end, Faison's bill passed out of the subcommittee and out of the full House Commerce Committee.
It now faces a final vote in the House Local Government Committee.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Mendes, "In your mind, does this show how the culture of Capitol Hill affects ordinary Tennesseans?"
"Absolutely," he replied.
"It's a close relationship at the state level between lobbyists and lawmakers. There's no getting around that. It's unfortunate that Nashville has to be on the bad end of that relationship."
SPECIAL SECTION: Revealed
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