Editorial: Short-term rentals need oversight

The login page for Airbnb's iPhone app is displayed on a computer displaying Airbnb's website, May 8, 2021, in Washington. Airbnb said Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, that its second-quarter profit jumped more than 70% over last summer, to $650 million, as revenue rose on strong bookings for summer-vacation rentals. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The login page for Airbnb's iPhone app is displayed on a computer displaying Airbnb's website, May 8, 2021, in Washington. Airbnb said Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, that its second-quarter profit jumped more than 70% over last summer, to $650 million, as revenue rose on strong bookings for summer-vacation rentals. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) Patrick Semansky—AP

Published: 09-11-2023 1:35 PM

Enfield is the latest area town trying to get a handle on short-term rentals — the catch-all term for residential properties that are rented to guests for up to 30 days and which are frequently marketed on such internet platforms as Airbnb and VRBO. A number of other Upper Valley municipalities face the same challenge: how to balance the property rights of homeowners with those of their neighbors and the broader community.

Enfield officials are characterizing their effort mostly as an attempt to create a registry of short-term rental properties, many of which are believed to be situated around the lakes in town. Rob Taylor, the town’s land use and community development administrator, told our colleague Liz Sauchelli that the draft ordinance being considered by the Selectboard is in no way “meant to restrict people from having them. The goal with this ordinance was to make sure the town got notified this was going on.”

Yet, Taylor also alluded to other aspects of short-term rentals that are, or should be, concerning to any community. One is an uptick in investment firms buying up properties that they then market. “It’s not just a family living on the lake renting out their place to their friends,” he said. “It’s now companies coming in, buying up these properties and doing it as a business.”

The draft ordinance declares as its objectives preserving the traditional character of residential neighborhoods; maintaining property values and quality of life for abutting residents; ensuring the safety of short-term renters; and preserving the quality and quantity of the year-round residential housing stock.

These are all eminently reasonable goals, as are the provisions meant to give them effect, which include having a readily available contact person for the property; occupancy limits; town inspections; adequate parking in designated areas on the property, and regular trash and recycling pickup.

Such sensible steps will likely be applauded by abutters to short-term rental properties in communities throughout the Upper Valley. The preamble to the village of Woodstock’s ordinance pulls no punches when it comes to describing the negative effects of unregulated short-term rentals: They present “a threat to the public welfare relating to compatibility with residential uses and preservation of the character of the neighborhoods in which they are located, and to the availability of housing stock.” Unregulated short-term rental use also has “negative secondary effects on residential areas” such as problems with parking, garbage, noise and outdoor/nighttime activities, it declares.

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This is not so much a laundry list as it is an indictment of what has perhaps literally become a cottage industry. Certainly many individuals who occasionally rent out their own homes are conscientious to a fault and highly respectful of their neighbors. But when short-term rentals take on the character of a business, they are ripe — and in some communities overripe — for regulation.

We think municipalities are justified, among other things, in limiting the number of times a year properties may be rented on a short-term basis and in requiring that the owners or an authorized agent be present on the premises or in close proximity to ensure that regulations are observed by their lodgers.

Vermont’s stock of short-term rentals has increased by 13% during the past year, according to one industry analysis. We suspect much the same thing is going on in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, both states are experiencing a huge shortage of year-round housing; there’s no doubt in our mind that the proliferation of short-term rentals is contributing to that crisis as companies and individuals buy up for investment purposes properties that might otherwise house people who actually live, or would like to live, here.

It can also be inferred that that booming market is driving up home prices as the lucrative income from short-term rentals more than covers expensive mortgage payments.

Enfield is on the right track here, weighing property owners’ rights with those of their neighbors, while also taking into account the whole community’s need for stability and continuity. Well-behaved house guests are always welcome, but there’s such a thing as visiting too often.