‘We are hemorrhaging housing stock’

Island’s planning boards consider ways to tackle the short-term rental issue.

Tisbury planning board chair Ben Robinson leading the All-Island planning board meeting.

The Island’s planning board agreed that more town-level discussion about short-term rentals is needed before a regional effort can be considered. 

The All-Island Planning Board meeting convened Wednesday evening to “discuss the development of a short-term rental bylaw and/or regulations,” according to the agenda item on the Oak Bluffs website. Short-term rentals have been an issue the Island has been grappling with, particularly how the practice shrinks housing availability, and how short-term rental taxes should be regulated. The planning boards of Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, and Aquinnah were unable to make a quorum, or did not post the meeting on time, but present members from these boards participated as individuals. 

Ben Robinson, Tisbury planning board chair and a Tisbury commissioner in the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said “this issue of all — of the issues around housing — seems like one squarely in the planner’s purview and the planning board’s purview, as we think about potential regulations.” Robinson hoped to “get a sense across the Island towns” on how short-term rentals are viewed, whether short-term rentals should be tackled as an Islandwide initiative, and whether the boards could prepare a plan for the spring town meetings. 

“Even if we don’t get there, we’ll at least have embarked on this work, which I feel is really critical,” he said. “We are hemorrhaging housing stock to a short-term rental industry that is not just made up of the locals who have traditionally rented out homes in the summer. It’s more and more becoming investment groups, larger corporations, and et cetera. I think it’s something we need to get a handle on.”

Aquinnah planning board chair Jim Wallen admitted that he rents out his house in the winter in order to afford it. He continued by saying Aquinnah has a different situation from the down-Island towns, due to its smaller size, high prices, and lower convenience of living. 

“It seems … it’s not so much corporations investing up here as it is down-Island, and we have a shrinking tax base between the Land Bank and the tribe,” Wallen said. “I don’t think many people would be able to live here without renting their houses. That’s where I’m coming from here.”

Wallen said he thinks the ability to do short-term rentals should be protected. Robinson agreed that Islanders renting out homes is “a historic part of our economy.” 

“I don’t think, in my mind, we’re going after every short-term rental option that’s out there, and I think we’re gonna have to protect those types of short-term rentals that are a part of our historic economy,” Robinson said, adding that more research will be needed to understand the economics of short-term rentals and the impact it has on the Island. 

Chilmark planning board chair Richard Osnoss said a regional effort to protect short-term rentals “could be wonderful,” and said he would “love to have data to base our decisions on.” 

“I think we can all agree that we don’t want to see corporations, nonmembers of the community, using our community to simply fatten their wallets,” Osnoss said. “Anything we can do to begin this process that we can agree on Islandwide I’ll support.” 

Beatrice Phear, a member of the West Tisbury short-term rental subcommittee, said her town has been discussing this issue. Her subcommittee decided it wants to allow short-term rentals to remain legal in West Tisbury. 

“We’re going to put in our April warrant the definition of short-term rentals and have it be permitted in residential zones, so that we’re in compliance with the decision of the Lynnfield court case. That’s as far as we got in terms of final decisions. Members of our [subcommittee] are definitely on a spectrum of where they want to regulate and where they don’t want to regulate, but I think we all agree we want to continue to allow Island residents to rent their homes on a short-term basis. The question is where to draw the line for seasonal, and how to define a seasonal resident who should be allowed, or an investor owner who should not be allowed,” Phear said, referencing the 2021 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision Styler v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield that made short-term rentals illegal in that town’s residential zones. “We want to prohibit absentee, investor, short-term landlords, and we want to permit residential landlords, and how to draw the line and where that line gets drawn on that spectrum is what we keep grappling with.”

Tisbury planning board member Casey Hayward said “dividing the terms” and getting a grasp of the definitions will be needed. 

West Tisbury affordable housing committee member Jefrey DuBard agreed that the housing stock is hemorrhaging, but felt an Islandwide initiative would be unwieldy, since “the bigger the boat, the harder it is to turn.”

“The six towns have very different opinions on this, levels of sensitivity, feelings on what we do going forward, and I just feel like getting all of the towns to agree on something is the wrong place for us to be putting our efforts,” he said. “Every town should be doing it independently with their full force right now, as West Tisbury has, and that is really the only way we get anything done as soon as we need to.”

West Tisbury short-term rental subcommittee member John Rau agreed with DuBard, pointing out how even in his group, there can be difficulty in decisionmaking. Rau added that the Lynnfield decision potentially makes short-term rentals in residential zones illegal on the Island, and will need to be addressed by the towns through bylaw amendments. “The devil is in the details,” Rau said. 

Robinson said that each town will need to think about what to bring before their voters, but collaboration can also be done by sharing resources and data. “We can always do both,” he said. 

David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Housing Authority, said the housing landscape is changing on-Island, particularly with the growth of short-term rentals. “You basically have over a few thousand properties now that, in the summertime mostly, are people on vacation,” Vigneault said. 

Wallen pointed out that there was a decrease in short-term rental property stock up-Island, since “so many people moved here during COVID because they can work remotely.” 

Martha’s Vineyard Commission housing planner Laura Silber said other resort towns in the U.S., such as Provincetown, are undertaking studies about short-term rentals in their communities.

“Undertaking that study is really a critical component of understanding this, because as a seasonal resort community, we’re looking at different issues than a location like Salem, which put in a very effective short-term rental ordinance,” Silber said, later adding that the studies found a “direct correlation” between a rise in short-term rentals and a decrease in the housing stock. 

After further discussion, a decision was made that each planning board should discuss short-term rentals independently, and to hold another All-Island Planning Board meeting in mid-December. Meanwhile, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will continue its research. The planning boards can send inquiries to Silber, who will compile them for the study. It was decided that the spring town meetings will be too soon to present a plan to voters, but Robinson said the towns’ planning boards can at least “get the ball rolling.”


  1. Many places, such as Key West and the North Fork of Long Island do have short-term rentals (for Airbnb, etc.) but the rentals must be two weeks or more. Key West is 28 days for transient residents. If I’m not mistaken, Nantucket is looking at doing the same. Perhaps that is where the committees should be looking – not to prohibit short-term rentals all together, but to create regulations on length of stays. Even a one-week limit (as rental agencies do) is preferable to nightly stays.

  2. One way to get a handle on the corporations is not to allow more than one home or property to be rented by any one individual or a corporation. What is happening is these corporations are buying multiple homes to be used as short term rental investment properties. There could be an exception for corporations or individuals that are renting for employee housing purposes with verification that that is what they’re doing and not doing the weekly rentals. One of my issues is these corporations and or individuals that are purchasing these homes to be used as a money making machine really do not care much about the island. They are after this for financial purposes only. Seldom do you see these homeowners contributing to any of the various island charity organizations. They give little back to the island and mostly just take.

    • Are you suggesting a law that prohibits one person from owning more than one house?
      Many Islander’s also own a place in Florida.

      • They can own as many houses as they want they just cannot use them as rental machinery and making money as a business. After all these are residential neighborhoods that in affect are running a commercial business operation. when I bought my house the next-door neighbor was a single-family home now it’s being run like a hotel. It is not zoned to be a hotel and if I wanted to live next to a hotel I would’ve bought next to a hotel. Totally unfair.

        • What is totally unfair is you deciding what your neighbor can do with his property.
          If you want to control what happens next door get a good real estate agent and buy it.

          • Zoning is not one guy telling his neighbor what he can or cannot do with his property. Zoning is how we together, as a community and for the common good, make rules about land use — it’s how we decide what we’d like the character of our neighborhoods to be.

    • Mr Murphy you seem to be suggesting that home owners indulge in what I would call ”disinterested benevolence” in order to preserve some vague definition about the island culture and community. Home owners are going to follow rules and regulations but not to espouse preservation of some idyllic dream about MV.

  3. Fairly vague discussion so far and the Vineyard moves too slowly to protect the Island from what Hunter S. Thompson (who before he committed suicide lived in Aspen and knew about tourist economies) called “greedheads.” I call them that, too. I’m not saying to give up because we move so slowly, but the old Island way of debating and dithering has got to go. One last thing. Mr. Wallen may be speaking frankly and being honest, and that’s great, but he is not data driven, he is speaking in what he considers “anecdotal fact” and we need actual detail, not guesswork based on how it feels to him and what he hears about in Aquinnah. Maybe he knows, that would be nice.

  4. Just remember that every time you arrive at a new regulation on rentals that you feel is benefitting the Island you are inadvertently killing the construction industry which is the largest livelihood for most Islanders.

    • Seems more like an anecdotal fact than anything else. Construction on this island will eventually die out in the sense that there is only so much land left to build on, the rest will renovations and additions. Hospitality is at least as big an industry on this island, for example.

  5. The meeting seems to be short on details. Exactly how many rentals are now from the so called “rental industry” that has somehow changed recently? How many island jobs rely on these rental properties? How many islanders will suffer lost business if these are regulated? How many island families can now afford to purchase homes because their business is increasing due to these rentals? I’m pretty sure Ben Robinson has admittedly stated he’s a seasonal renter on the island.

  6. I think this is an excellent discussion for the All Island Planning Board to be having and pursuing. By collecting more data and more input from community partners, something constructive could happen. I have been hearing about collaborations in other communities with similar issues between realtors, banks and building contractors to create incentives for investing in year-round housing.

  7. The solution is really simple. Stop new home purchases from allowing rentals (over two weeks). In other words no STRs for new homeowners (say homes entered into contract after January), except for two weeks a year (this allows new owners who live on island or who are seasonal but at least want to make some money tax free to do so). Also, prevent corporations or LLCs from buying multiple residential properties. Don’t hurt those part timers that purchased a home and are saving so they can retire here, or those year rounders who want to rent. Many of us did just that. There is a fair and equitable way to do this and to help create affordable housing, etc. The truth is that many seasonal owners really take excellent care of their home, vastly improving neighborhoods. They spend oodles of money on landscapers, the trades, taxes, etc. All of that helps our economy greatly. So compromise. Don’t say only year rounders can rent or say no one can rent. Allow the rentals, but check the growth of it.

  8. Mass General Law provides for taxation of commercially used residential property. The law is already in place. I do not think the assessors consider this law when assessing residential property that is used for short term rental, or for residential property owned corporately, and rented short term. I also wonder about housing purchased by businesses like Stop and Shop, for example.

    • I take issue with Ben Robinson’s statement that “short-term rentals are a part of our historic economy.”
      Sure, renting out one’s home in the summer or taking in a few lodgers etc. were SOP for decades. Some people also rented out their homes in the winter, etc. The bottom line was that you could rent out your own home for two weeks without a tax penalty.

      However, Airbnb, which was founded in 2008, has totally changed the rental landscape, for both tourists and the local rental market. It has has negative impacts on local housing all over the world, and here.
      Airbnb is not really a bed and breakfast business. It is more like a motel business (actually, it is more like a bank, but that is a topic for a different day).

      Pre-2008 definitions according to Mass. law can be found here:


      To wit,
      (b) “Bed and breakfast home”, a private owner-occupied house where three or fewer rooms are let and a breakfast is included in the rent, and all accommodations are reserved in advance. ”

      I believe it used to be that any home owner could legally and by right rent out a couple of rooms in their own home, where they lived on the premises, up to three rooms.

      The idea of renting out whole housing units on a short-term basis and thus effectively taking them off the normal housing market has only occurred since the advent of Airbnb (and maybe VRBO) and of course the Internet.

      The core issue—the rock and the hard place—as I see it is Ms. Silber’s statement:
      that there is a “‘direct correlation’ between the rise in the short-term rentals and a decrease in the housing stock.” This is the demonstrated circumstance that has led many, many cities and towns to absolutely forbid renting out complete housing units on a short-term basis. This is basically a zero-sum game between the interests of housing advocates and short-term rental advocates. We really can’t have it both ways.

      The Wikipedia entry for Airbnb includes a helpful listing plus documentation of measures that various cities inside and outside the USA have taken to tame the Airbnb juggernaut:

      Running Airnbnb’s is now a business completely different from the old-fashioned genuine bed-and-breakfasts where an owner rented out a couple of rooms in their own house.

      A Youtube how-to video, “The Five Bank Accounts You Need for Your Airbnb Business,” on how to run your Aribnb business and increase your “short-term rental portfolio” provides fascinating and somewhat horrifying insights into this new universe of profits. I strongly recommend watching this, as it gives a clear picture of where this whole thing is going—heck, I might start my own “Airbnb business” and start raking in the profits!!


      Seriously, do we want more and more of the Vineyard’s limited housing stock to become part of these portfolios?
      IMO we need to pull the emergency brakes on this whole thing soon—not two years from now. Put a moratorium on any complete housing units being rented out short-term.

      Another point: How much more wastewater and laundry detergent is going into our systems or septics from the increased volume of laundry generated by these short-term rentals?

      Another question: When employers such as the S&S or others rent out a unit for their employees (who may change over quite quickly and new employees are suddenly in residence), do they get to deduct this cost from their business income? If so, this is another factor raising the bar for regular folks trying to find rental housing on the Island.

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