Airbnb, one of the original and go-to websites for booking short-term rentals, began as a new and fun way to travel. Following more rugged and free options like Couch Surfer, travelers could spend the night in a stranger’s guest bedroom, or apartment, or even their whole house, with just a few clicks of a mouse and a credit card. It was a strange but exciting experience, and incredibly convenient.
The website, and the versions that came after it, also made it easier for homeowners trying to subsidize mortgage payments by renting their home for a week, or months, at a time, a long tradition on the Vineyard.
But the collective of online short-term rental promoters — AirBnB, VRBO, HomeAway, to name a few — has turned into a monster.
If the Vineyard wants to keep the character that is cherished by so many, coming to grips and finding a way to regulate the industry will be critical. Each Island town will have to decide what direction it wants to go, but it will require work and community buy-in.
Cities and towns across the commonwealth have taken the issue on, some taking more drastic measures than others. And the Vineyard, with a lot to lose, needs to act.
There are several problems that come with an unregulated market. Environmental and public health considerations top the list. Without a health or building department inspecting proposed short-term rental units, proper safety measures like smoke detectors could be lacking, leaving guests vulnerable. Septic systems can get overrun when too many guests are booked in a small home, which will add to the pollution of estuaries and the Great Ponds.
There’s also liability. Massachusetts towns that don’t have specific bylaws or regulations explicitly allowing short-term rentals can be vulnerable to lawsuits from someone aggrieved by a rental experience. Tisbury is the only town with any kind of regulation in place with that protection.
There’s also user experience: People expect a certain brand when they travel to the Vineyard, and an unregulated market likely leads to a poorer experience.
But most important, a scary possibility, is the reduction in housing stock and the potential destruction of the character of Vineyard neighborhoods. We’ve heard anecdotally from local real-estate agents that corporations are looking to buy up homes in large numbers on the Vineyard. Marriott Bonvoy has advertised several listings on the Island, including a $2,652-per-night rental in Edgartown, which they are calling the Planting Field Home. Marriott is likely not the only one plotting.
These corporations, as has happened in other communities, buy up several homes and rent them to tourists. Each home bought is one less available for a family living year-round on the Island, hurting an already squeezed housing market. It’s one home with the lights off during the winter months. It’s not illegal and it’s not necessarily wrong, but do we want our neighborhoods run by Marriott?
Part of the solution is understanding how much corporations have taken hold of the short-term rental market on the Island, which towns are trying to understand. The All-Island Planning Board, almost a year ago, agreed to go forward with a comprehensive study of the short-term rental market. The study has yet to move forward, as they are waiting for grant money, but the idea is there.
In the meantime, there are ways to limit the impact of corporate control and to regulate the market. Looking to communities that are beginning to push back is a good place to start.
Great Barrington recently passed very limiting regulations. In the Western Massachusetts community, residents can rent only one short-term rental space, and LLCs that don’t disclose their backers cannot offer short-term rentals. In effect, the community is limiting multiple short-term rentals run by one entity. The regulation has been signed into law by the attorney general’s office, and has gone into effect. It is viable, and Vineyard towns should at least consider similar action.
Closer to home, Provincetown’s health board passed a measure earlier this year that requires a $750 annual fee to register a short-term rental. It’s an increase from $300 charged for three years. The fee is expected to bring in about a million dollars a year, which will help pay for the inspection and regulation of the industry.
The new fee won’t necessarily stop corporate buyers, but it’s at least one mechanism to help keep the industry in check. The town is also considering an ordinance similar to Great Barrington’s, but modified to their own hopes and goals.
There are examples across the country worth considering as well. Like Truckee, Calif., a community with a seasonal skiing economy. The community is not allowing short-term rentals in multifamily homes, in order to keep housing affordable for workers. Durango, Colo., has limited short-term rentals to under 5 percent of neighborhoods.
Vineyard towns should look to these examples.
But a warning: It won’t be an easy fight. To our east, Nantucket has had multiple town meetings, with citizens’ petitions filed, to create some sort of regulation. Nothing has passed, and it’s been ugly at times on the town meeting floor. There’s a lot of money in the short-term industry that has not made it easy. The town, after several years of trying, appears ready to present an article to voters in the spring. Whether that passes or not, we will see.
To learn from Nantucket, towns on the Vineyard need to work with their respective communities to find the best way to regulate the industry; to figure out what works best for residents and homeowners in each town.
The corporate creep into the short-term rental market on the Island is a serious concern. We know the outcry that came when a McDonald’s tried to open a drive-through location on the Island. But this is a quieter, more plotting beast that is harder to get our arms around. Island towns and regional entities are working at it, but we worry about the impacts that have already been made, and urge swift action.