John Schilling, Tisbury fire chief, recalls responding to an incident where he found 10 people living in an unfinished basement, with rooms partitioned off by two-by-fours and blue tarps, and a gas stove connected to a 20-pound propane tank that sat in the basement.
“This is frightening,” Chief Schilling said. “There’s no smoke detectors. There’s no carbon monoxide detectors. If something goes wrong, people don’t stand a chance.”
For Chief Schilling, it’s incidents like these that give him cause for alarm. He and Maura Valley, Tisbury board of health agent, have joined forces to create a new bylaw for the regulation of rental housing in Vineyard Haven to better ensure public health and safety. There is an article on the April 25 special town meeting warrant for Tisbury to amend its current bylaw.
Chief Schilling and Ms. Valley met with The Times on Tuesday to discuss the proposed regulations. “It lets people know that they do have to meet certain requirements if they’re going to rent out their property,” Ms. Valley said.
The bylaw looks to regulate all rentals — year round, seasonal, and short term — by requiring the property owner to register with the town, obtaining a rental certificate from the Town of Tisbury. Ms. Valley said the regulation puts the onus on the property owner, who must fill out an application that states the number and size of the rental units, and the number of rooms in each unit. They must claim that the unit is in compliance with all applicable laws, following sanitary and safety codes, like having smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
“It’s not uncommon when we respond to an incident that we find something that’s not up to code,” Chief Schilling said. “And that goes for people’s regular homes, not just someone who rents.”
There is a fee to register a rental unit, which will be determined by the board of selectmen if the new bylaw passes, and the registration is good for three years. The board of health, the fire department, or the building inspector have the right to do site visits, if necessary, to ensure compliance and establish a maximum occupancy.
“The town does have the right to go look, because you’re charging somebody money to live there,” Ms. Valley said. “We want to make sure that it’s safe, and suitable accommodations, whether it’s by the night or by the year.”
Getting a handle on short term rentals
A year ago, Chief Schilling was doing an annual inspection of a local bed and breakfast, and the owner complained that he was having a hard time competing with Airbnb and VRBO, two websites for short-term rentals.
The owner of the bed and breakfast was doing everything legitimately, meeting safety and sanitation codes and paying the required insurance — insurance that sites like Airbnb weren’t paying because they are “flying under the radar,” Chief Schilling said.
“He was going to drop his B and B license, and go that approach,” he said.
“It didn’t make any sense,” Ms. Valley said.
“It didn’t make, literally, dollars and cents to be doing things legitimately,” the fire chief added.
A quick search for rentals in Tisbury on Airbnb pulls up more than 300 hits. The same search on VRBO shows more than 1,000 rentals. Though some may be duplicates, or may be in a neighboring town, the high numbers reflect the prevalence of short-term rentals on the Island.
“You’re talking a significant number of people that are doing short-term rentals out of their homes with no oversight whatsoever,” Ms. Valley said.
Part of the regulation would require property owners to post their rental registration permit number, assigned after the unit has been registered with the town, on their online advertisements or in the newspaper, so people know that the unit has been approved by the town.
According to Ms. Valley and Chief Schilling, there are many seasonal rentals with substandard living conditions on the Vineyard. They’ve inspected homes in Tisbury with unfinished basements that have been sectioned off to fit 10 people, or “where they’re cramming 16 to 20 people into a three-bedroom house,” Ms. Valley said.
“We find frequently seasonal workers being taken advantage of, or immigrant workers being taken advantage of, by landlords that are turning places into rentals that aren’t habitable,” Chief Schilling said.
Part of the rental regulation bylaw would allow the town to establish a maximum occupancy of a rental unit, specifically aimed to address issues of overcrowding. The rate would be based on the size of the unit and of the bedrooms, and what the septic system could handle.
Chief Schilling said what’s most distressing is that when he’s done an inspection and finds substandard living conditions, the tenants often don’t want to bring the subject up to their landlord because they’re afraid of being evicted.
“They’re being victimized and they’re afraid to complain,” he said. “And that shouldn’t be. They have rights and they need to be protected.”