LENOX — What’s the point of a town bylaw regulating short-term rentals on Airbnb, Vrbo and other sites if it has no teeth?
Lack of enforcement came up dramatically this week when a local resident who had been evicted from his home because the owner was converting it into a short-term rental property implored the Select Board to offer some answers.
“I want to speak about my frustration with the town for allowing so many short-term rentals,” said Arthur Oliver, a nationally known costume designer who has worked at Shakespeare & Company and has resided in Lenox for 30 years.
Oliver, who stated that he had been evicted in 2020, struggled to find housing, and most of his five housemates had to leave town.
“It was a pretty hard downsize for me,” he told the Select Board members on Wednesday. “And now I watch more and more properties being purchased solely for being converted to Airbnbs.”
In Lenox, 53 properties are currently registered for short-term rentals, Town Clerk Kerry Sullivan told The Eagle on Thursday.
One example Oliver cited, at the corner of Main and Housatonic streets, resulted in the eviction of two friends after 27 years of residency there. “You’ve lost so many people, and you’re losing so many more,” he said, noting that he had only been able to find a very small apartment on Greenwood Street.
“If I hadn’t found it by faith, by magic, I was ready to pack my car and drive back to my home state of Alabama,” he said. “I feel that the town has turned its back not just on me but on many, many others.”
Oliver said that no one at Town Hall can consistently monitor the town’s existing bylaw. It caps by-right short-term rentals at 75 days total in a year — a limitation designed to thwart investors seeking to buy up properties to run them as Airbnbs year-round.
“So, it’s basically on the honor system,” he said.
“I feel very strongly that people like you should be in the community and should be able to find affordable housing,” Select Board member Marybeth Mitts told Oliver. “I don’t know how we have any teeth for enforcing that 75 days.”
Mitts chairs the Affordable Housing Trust and is seeking developers for new construction rental housing in Lenox.
A proposed 65-unit, mixed-income rental housing complex at Brushwood Farm, adjoining the Courtyard by Marriott, is awaiting state financing support for the Pennrose project, a decision expected this summer. If there’s a green light, the $30 million complex could be completed sometime in 2025.
In November 2018, 400 town meeting voters — the largest turnout in many years — rejected by voice vote a proposed general bylaw to set up required health and safety inspections and registration with the town clerk by primary homeowners renting their houses for up to 31 consecutive days at a time.
Voters told the Planning Board to revise the plan. The outcome was a major victory for residents renting homes to tourists for short stays.
Then, in November 2019, only 219 residents showed up to approve by a 71 percent supermajority the Planning Board’s revised bylaw allowing short-term rentals up to 75 days a year, with an option for homeowners to apply for 35 more by special permit.
The catch: Although a requirement that short-term rental hosts register their properties with the town clerk was approved, a provision requiring annual inspections was removed after the state issued what town officials called confusing guidelines for enforcement. However, the building inspector can check properties if there are complaints.
The registration allows public safety personnel to be familiar with the location of short-term rentals, requires hosts to provide a local contact to respond to noise complaints or other concerns, and to provide information on record at Town Hall for all advertised rental properties.
Mitts plans to report back to the Select Board in several weeks after consulting the Lenox Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals on the short-term rental regulation issue.
“I wish we hadn’t given so much leeway,” said Selectman Neal Maxymillian. “I hate the notion that we’re turning our backs. It seems like our system of tracking doesn’t have any active measures we can take.”
All short-term rental hosts are required to register with Town Hall, said Town Manager Christopher Ketchen. The town gets reports quarterly from the state Department of Revenue.
Matthew Kollmer, the zoning enforcement officer and building inspector, can investigate any properties suspected of being rented short-term for more than the 75-day annual limit, Ketchen said. Any rentals at an unregistered site would be subject to a cease-and-desist order, he added.