Privacy woes grow over Wimberley STR software

The purchase of a $19,000 short term rental software by the Wimberley City Council in March is causing heartburn for some STR owners who worry about data privacy.

That purchase is part of the city’s mission to address noncompliant STRs in the city. At the forefront of the controversy was the recent adoption by Wimberley city leaders of the new STR ordinance in late April.

But in order for Wimberley to address noncompliant STRs, city officials hopes the software will find these properties. The city is contracting with Host Compliance, a private organization tasked at addressing the issue.

For Jennifer Ober, a local STR owner and Wimberley resident, the software purchase comes at a time when data breaches and mismanagement are prevalent. Ober and her family worry about how the company operates.

“We don’t know this company or how they operate, so how are they going to know if people are out of compliance or not,” Ober said. “Our addresses are not published until someone books, so are they booking and canceling to get that information? We just don’t know.”

Ober and her husband left their previous professional jobs to tackle vacation rentals full-time. The move gives them financial stability and the ability to spend time with their young children.

“The talk of annual renewal fees for our (conditional use permit) don’t exactly make us feel any better either,” Ober said. “This is our livelihood. A few hundred bucks add up. And for those who do this part-time, that could have an enormous economic impact.”

Host Compliance did not respond to request for comment, but the website does provide some information on the company’s philosophy.

“Airbnb, HomeAway, FlipKey and hundreds of other vacation rental websites have turned vacation rentals into a booming underground economy at the expense of long-term tenants, neighborhood character and the quality of life of neighbors,” its website reads.

Ober disagrees that vacation rentals are a nuisance for neighbors. She said a majority of her renters are for newlyweds, those who seek a romantic getaway and families, not partygoers and troublemakers.

According to the Host Compliance website, the company has developed “proprietary technologies, methodologies and a process to quickly and cost-effectively monitor specific geographies for short-term vacation rental listings …”

The company can also precisely identify the addresses and contact information of the associated properties.

“We have never had any contact with Host Compliance or the city on the specifics of how this software works,” Ober said. “I have real safety concerns when a company I don’t know about has the address and precise location of my rentals. What if that data goes into the wrong hands?”

Discrepancy in  STR data
However, new data on the number of out-of-compliance STR in Wimberley, presented at an April 25 STR committee meeting, differs from earlier estimates.

Wimberley City Administrator Shawn Cox said the Host Compliance data indicated there are 116 total operating STRs in the city limits and that 76 of those are permitted correctly.

Roughly 40 STRs are not currently in compliance. City officials had estimated 200 to 300 STR were out of compliance in the city.

Cox said some STR owners could have pulled their properties from the various databases based on the discussion by the committee.

Committee members estimated the number could rise in a few months when the busy summer vacation season hits.

The discrepancy led Ober to have a distrust of the software.

“These numbers just don’t add up … The STR market in Wimberley is not a competitive or hostile one,” Ober said. “We work together and support each other. This whole process seems like a way to solve a problem that just doesn’t exist.”

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