A business new to the Madison area is encouraging residents to cash in on Badgers football games by renting out their homes to visitors on home-game weekends, just as city officials are looking to regulate the practice.
Partners and staff at University Football Rentals say a homeowner can make $1,500 to $2,000 or more tax-free per weekend, and the company will do most of the work involved with getting the house rented.
“Our primary focus is on (homeowners who are) junior professors, university employees, graduate students, where that kind of money really moves the needle,” said Dan Willenborg, director of business development for the company, which helps arrange short-term rentals in a few college football cities around the country through its website and a small Chicago office.
In South Bend, Ind., where the company started in 2006 and where it still does 90 percent of its business, more than 150 homeowners have earned more than $1 million over the past two years renting their homes for Notre Dame football games, according to Willenborg and company partner Mike Doyle.
A recent look at Madison Football Rentals, the company’s local website, showed the same three or four homes signed up for each of this season’s seven home games, plus next spring’s graduation.
Little more than a week before the Badgers opener Aug. 31, the closest home listed was 1.87 miles away from Camp Randall Stadium — a five-bedroom house with quarters for up to 12 people, according to the listing. The homeowner was asking $2,500 in rent for the typical weekend stay of 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday noon, and the company would get a standard 15 percent of that.
There were no actual bookings as of Wednesday, but company leaders didn’t sound worried.
“We’d like to have at least 10 homes rented in Madison,” Willenborg said. “That gives a good selection. Once we get over 20, word of mouth starts to take over.”
Count Julia Kerr, co-president of the Vilas Neighborhood Association, and Ald. Sue Ellingson, District 13, among the skeptics.
Their homes were papered with flyers about the company when Willenborg and Doyle visited a few weeks ago to canvass neighborhoods and try to drum up business.
“I would be kind of surprised to see long-term homeowners in Vilas making their houses available for this purpose,” Kerr said. “It is a bit hard to picture.”
Ellingson and five other council members are sponsoring new legislation that would regulate short-term rentals in Madison. They’re holding what they called a “listening session” on Sept. 5 to get public input.
The proposed measure would require homeowners who want to do short-term rentals to get a conditional use permit for a new zoning classification to be known as a “tourist rooming house.” Getting a permit would require a public hearing, and an approved permit could be revoked if there were problems. The proposal also would require short-term rentals to be at least 500 feet apart, which would limit their numbers.
The measure also would require short-term-rental operators to pay the city’s room tax and get a license from the public health department, just as hotels must do.
“The idea is to create a framework to ensure that people can do this legally, but also provide for some regulation around it,” said Ald. Mark Clear, 19th District and a co-sponsor of the proposal. “It’s not clear to me whether it’s legal or not now. I’d say at this point (companies facilitating short-term rentals) are in that gray region.”
The ordinance also would apply to short-term rentals through other popular websites such as Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner). Clear said council members, believing some amount of the activity already is going on, had been informally discussing the issue for months with city staff before University Football Rentals came to town.
“We wanted to find a way to make these rentals legal, but also give neighbors some say in the process,” said co-sponsor Ald. Marsha Rummel, 6th District. “Many of us have heard concerns about safety and neighborhood integrity as short-term rentals proliferate.”
Doyle said his company would work with Madison officials to get all the necessary information about any new rules to homeowners who list with them. He said the company has run into similar regulations elsewhere, including State College, Pa., home of Penn State University, where city officials required a permitting system similar to the one Madison is considering.
“We don’t want this to be a confrontational thing,” Doyle said. “It’s really just an information issue. We want to figure out what we need to do, and what we need to pass on to our homeowners, to make sure they’re doing everything the right way.”
Clear said he understands the push for a service providing short-term rentals.
“It seems like a decent idea,” he said. “Home football games are obviously a time when hotels fill up and there’s lots of opportunities. It makes sense.”
Willenborg said that need was the driving force behind the company, which was started by three Notre Dame graduates who had trouble finding good places to stay when they returned for football games in South Bend. The company now arranges about 100 rentals in South Bend on a big game weekend.
“The real over-arching focus of our company is on solving
the lodging infrastructure problem in small towns that have multiple, huge events,” Willenborg said.
Jason Salus, president of the Greater Madison Hotel and Lodging Association, said he and other local hotel operators object to short-term rentals on grounds that they are “unlicensed, untaxed and unregulated” and said he didn’t think there was a need for them.
“We’re not bursting at the seams,” he said, noting city hotels normally run at about a 60 percent occupancy. “There are a few nights when that happens, but I don’t see any guarantee that these rentals will only be open on those nights.”