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Short-term rentals in Great Barrington

'Virtue signaling' or good governing? Great Barrington residents divided on Airbnb rules now headed to a June vote

Great Barrington, short-term rental crack down (copy)

Gilmore Avenue in Great Barrington last summer. Town officials are weighing a bylaw that would set limits on short-term rentals throughout town. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — After months of debate and delays, a measure to regulate short-term rentals in Great Barrington is headed to a vote.

Advocates say the rules are worth a shot to protect neighborhoods, ease tight housing and moderate prices and rent.

Others say trying to limit short-term home rentals won’t solve the housing crisis or ease rising rents and will hurt people who need rental income from their properties.

The Select Board voted 3-1 Monday to send a revised draft of the proposal to voters at annual town meeting June 6, ending an impasse over perceived conflicts of interest involving three board members. The panel was able to resume talks on the measure after earlier legal issues sidelined it.

A citizens’ petition headed to town meeting will offer another version of the measure that has no cap on rental days.

In a compromise, the new official draft bylaw raises the cap from 90 to 150 on the number of days a year a home can be rented. It also no longer contains a clause that people can rent more than one property if they were doing so as of Jan. 1, 2022.

Taking that clause out allowed Vice Chair Leigh Davis to continue deliberating, after the state Ethics Commission advised she had a conflict of interest following questions about a rental property near her home.

Davis, who is driving the proposal, referred The Eagle’s questions on the matter to the commission. Commission spokesperson Gerry Tuoti said he can “neither confirm nor deny whether anyone has sought or received the commission’s advice.”

Davis’ disclosure, filed with the Town Clerk, indicates that by removing the clause, Davis’ “financial interest” in the bylaw is shared by “a substantial segment of the Town’s population.” The commission defines that as 10 percent or more.

A vote Monday to put the clause back into the draft failed on a 2-2 vote, with board Chairman Stephen Bannon and member Ed Abrahams voting in favor of restoring that language.

This did not go over well with opponents of the plan who spoke at the board’s meeting Monday. One said the clause’s removal placed Davis’ interests ahead of those of taxpayers.

“The whole process seems to be a sham,” said Francois Coeytaux.

Davis says the town is trying to address a housing crisis that affects the “safety and stability” of the community and what she termed “the diminishing quality of life in Great Barrington.”

Davis says the new 150-day cap will help balance interests, including of those who need short-term rental income. She said the proposed bylaw could free up housing for the long-term rental market.

Board member Abrahams continues to be opposed to the cap on rental days, saying it’s harmful and pointless.

His critics point to his own appearance of a conflict of interest, since his domestic partner rents her former home on Airbnb.

Differing views

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Residents said the bylaw doesn’t account for personal circumstances of residents and won’t fix the housing crunch.

The bylaw is “virtue signaling,” said resident Daniel Seitz, and could bring legal trouble for Great Barrington if the rule is later “construed as a substantial taking of value.”

David Long called the bylaw “wildly ill-conceived” and said family issues including divorce and death can prompt property owners to seek rental income.

Julie Peretti, a lifelong resident, said Airbnb rentals “saved us” and helped her family keep their property. She pointed to the mounting expense of Berkshire hotels, and how short-term renting brings in economically diverse and interesting visitors to the county.

Those who support the bylaw say it will keep people or entities from using town homes solely as a business opportunity at the expense of neighborhood integrity.

“Let’s take care of our families, as opposed to our bank accounts,” said Nan Wile.

Erica Mielke said she worries the town will turn into Cape Cod, with workers getting bussed in.

Barbara Barak cautioned that the town could go the way of a popular summer spot on Long Island, N.Y.

“I have friends who are out in the North Fork and I’ve seen their communities become just transient population,” said Barak, who lives near an Airbnb that last year drew ire for noise violations. “It’s terrifying what can happen, so I do think you’re putting a brake on something that is slowly getting way out of control.”

Julie Anidjar pointed to her neighbor on “The Hill” who is now sandwiched between two homes recently sold and placed on Airbnb.

Kristin Grippo, who recently faced eviction, just found out her rent is doubling next month. She said she understands the bylaw isn’t a solution to the housing crisis. But it is an important conversation.

“I think that what it’s doing is speaking to what we’re standing for and against,” Grippo said. “But what if it makes anything available to one family … that could be my family.”

The state outlawed rent control in 1994, but there are other things communities can do. They include expanding rental assistance, redeveloping blighted properties and continuing incentives to build affordable housing, according to recommendations from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

The agency’s 2020 “Housing Needs Assessment” noted that if most of the town’s 178 short-term rentals were to convert to long-term rentals, that would add 16 percent more to rental stock. But short-term rentals are important as well, especially for households that are “cost burdened,” the agency said.

This is the dividing line in a town whose median household income is $56,250, according to the U.S. Census.

Officials say they want to prevent corporate entities from buying up housing stock and cutting locals out.

A number of homes are owned by limited liability corporations, or LLCs. The bylaw would allow LLCs to rent under all the same conditions in the regulations, but only if they are owned by a real person. If the bylaw passes, the town would hire Granicus, a software company, to track property ownership. Detractors call that “spy ware.”

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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