NORTH ADAMS — Before a landlord rents an apartment to a new tenant, the city inspects it to certify that it is compliant. But, the same does not happen when a property owner rents a short-term rental, like an Airbnb or Vrbo.
“I’m aware of people who have actually rented out Airbnbs because their space would not pass to be an apartment,” City Councilor Keith Bona said. “That, to me, was a big red flag.”
He added: “I’ve seen them firsthand. I was told these are Airbnbs and the reason why is, they weren’t able to get a certificate of compliance to be an apartment.”
That safety issue is one of several issues a proposed ordinance aims to address.
North Adams currently has 62 short-term rentals, according to a state registry. For years, the City Council has talked about regulating short-term rentals, and now it has a proposed ordinance that would, among other rules, require them to be registered with the city, get inspected and comply with the state building code.
On Tuesday, the City Council scheduled a public hearing before the Planning Board at 5 p.m. Feb. 14 on the proposal.
The proposed seven-page ordinance, created with an eye toward health and safety, states the rules are designed “to ensure that the short-term rental of residential units will not be a detriment to the character and livability of the surrounding residential neighborhood by establishing a process by which short-term rental units shall be registered for such use and operated under the regulations set forth hereinafter.”
It spells out what part of the state building code rentals would need to comply with, depending on what type of short-term rental it is.
“The city of North Adam has no rules, regulations, anything regarding short term rentals,” said Zachary Feury, project coordinator in the Office of Community Development. “It’s not listed as an allowed use in the zoning code.” Feury said the Community Development Office worked with the city’s inspection services and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to develop language for the proposal.
Benjamin Lamb, who served on the City Council until the end of 2021 and most recently was chair of the council’s Community Development Committee, worked on the proposed ordinance. He thinks the vast majority of short-term rentals have taken steps to be safe, and the proposal would ensure that they all do.
It’s also about creating a legal pathway for them.
“The biggest thing is to create a mechanism for them to be legally developed,” he said. There are categories in the building code for hotels and long-term rentals, but nothing about short-term rentals.
“It’s this weird gray space,” Lamb said.
Bill Meranti, director of inspection services, said he hopes the public hearing next month will be informative.
“It’s about meeting the building code,” he said. “If you can with ease, that’s a benefit to you. If it’s more difficult, it could be more expensive.”
While the state created a way to tax short-term rentals, Meranti said, the building code didn’t change.
“This isn’t something new. The building code is the building code. It’s always been the building code,” he said. “We’re trying to come up with a reasonable set of regulations that are less complicated and easily understood for people who are trying to venture into the business.”
Depending on what type of home or building the rental is in and whether it is owner-occupied or professionally managed, the rental would be subject to different parts of the state building code, according to the proposal.
If passed, what exactly short-term rental owners might have to do to their properties depends on their property, Meranti said.
“It may very well include sprinklers,” he said. “It may include some handicap-accessibility issues for entrances and restrooms. It’s on a case-by-case basis. That’s where the angst seems to be from. The people who are investing in these houses, it may, in fact, cost them something to comply with the building code.”
He has heard concerns from some owners about possible added costs. “Quite frankly, that’s part of the nature of business. There’s a cost of doing business.”
Anyone who wants to venture into owning short-term rentals, he said, “should retain the services of a good design firm to look at your house, look at the building code and look at what it might entail before you dive in.”
Kyanna Sutton, her husband and her cousin own a four-bedroom short-term rental at 182 East Main St. They were interested in starting a business with a short-term rental and were drawn to North Adams for its access to nature and art, said Sutton, who lives in Plymouth. They purchased the home in 2019, and a local company manages the rental, she said.
Sutton and her business partners worry that it could be costly to bring the building up to code, she said.
“Most owners aren’t deep-pocketed hoteliers,” she said. “We are small-business people. It is a family-owned business. We lost significant money in the first year. ... We aren’t in the black yet.”
But, Sutton isn’t yet sure what changes the ordinance, if passed, would require them to make. “We just don’t know how the building code would be applied and to what extent that would impact our property.”
She also worries that an ordinance could hamper economic development.
“We think that, in the absence of any economic impact study, it’s going to adversely affect tourism and, therefore, revenue to the city,” she said.