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Short-term rental rancor intensifies in Great Barrington as regulation talks get stuck

Board member accused of conflict of interest because of domestic partner's rental

HILLNEIGHBORHOOD-4.jpg (copy) (copy)

"The Hill" neighborhood in Great Barrington, where, some residents say, short-term rentals are proliferating. Town officials are struggling with the details of a regulation addressing rentals. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — As officials continued to get stuck Monday on several points in a proposed short-term rental regulation, questions arose over a possible conflict of interest by a board member who is opposed to the crux of the proposal — the appearance of which, he says, he disclosed to the town and state officials last year.

The board, which must have a bylaw ready by April 4, will continue to work toward a compromise in the coming weeks.

Several residents are accusing Ed Abrahams of a conflict after learning that his domestic partner is renting her home on Airbnb. They also say that he hasn’t disclosed this publicly at board meetings amid countless deliberations.

It was not brought up at the Monday meeting, and those who emailed The Eagle about it later asked for anonymity. They pointed to the recorded mortgage showing that Abrahams’ name was on it for about three months, starting Dec. 30, 2020. The deed shows it was discharged April 5, 2021. His partner paid him back in May, when she closed on her old house, he said.

Ed Abrahams disclosure

The first page of Great Barrington Select Board member Ed Abrahams' disclosure to the town clerk's office.

The idea of finding a way to prevent Airbnb excess has been floated since 2019; the regulation first was proposed in September 2021, through a joint housing subcommittee. Abrahams has been opposed to the bylaw, mostly its 90-day annual limit on rental days. He also thinks it is divisive to impose tighter rules for second-home owners or part-time residents.

Ed Abrahams disclosure

Page two of Great Barrington Select Board member Ed Abrahams' disclosure to the town clerk's office.

Abrahams told The Eagle that he had fronted his partner the money to buy the house, and she now is its sole owner.

“She bought the house before she sold her other house, so, I used my retirement money so she could buy that without a bank loan,” he said.

“That was before she was doing short-term rental,” he said. “When this began, it wasn’t an issue.” It also is her primary residence, so, the bylaw wouldn’t affect her, Abrahams added.

His partner asked that she not be named, in order to protect her privacy.

Abrahams said the state Ethics Commission told him that her renting the house is not a conflict, after he called in early November to disclose it. On Nov. 16, he filed a conflict-of-interest disclosure with the town clerk’s office.

Abrahams said the couple keeps their finances separate. He also pointed to the challenge of perceptions in a small town, particularly since the latest incarnation of the regulation, driven by board Vice Chair Leigh Davis, gives full-time homeowners an advantage.

“We all live in this town, and [most board members] are homeowners, so, we all have that conflict,” he said. “Leigh’s proposal is making it easier for full-time residents to profit. Does that mean we all have a conflict of interest?”

One member of the five-person board did, said the state Ethics Commission. Eric Gabriel had to recuse himself from deliberations because he owns a number of long-term rental properties, and that this association, in that future, could constitute a conflict should he switch to short-term rentals.

The circumstance of Abraham’s partner illustrates one of the main complaints about the proposal in the community. It has sparked some blowback.

“She took care of people with special needs for 20 years, works in a coffee shop and is trying to put her daughter through college,” Abrahams said of his domestic partner renting the home.

The sheer variety of owners who rent in the short-term is why building a compromise has proved difficult — and bitter.

Davis’ current proposal allows a full-time resident/owner to offer two separate entire dwelling units for short-term-rental use, as long as one is their primary residence. Part-time or nonresidents can rent out only one dwelling unit in the short term. A full-time resident is defined as someone who lives in town more than 183 days per year.

GB select board screenshot (copy)

The Great Barrington Select Board is struggling to find a compromise for a  proposed short-term housing rental bylaw. 

The concept is meant, in theory, to stop runaway rentals that disrupt neighborhood cohesion, drive up home values and devour housing stock. It comes amid a housing crisis nationwide.

‘Crazy, crazy money’

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The 183-day minimum is one place where the board got stuck Monday.

Davis tried to ease the number of days to 150, in order to accommodate those people who are “invested in the community,” even though they might not meet the 183-day minimum.

But Abrahams challenged that assumption, giving the example of a resident of 64 years who might move away part of the year but wants to keep her house.

“It still divides us,” he said. “It just lets a few more people in the gate before dividing us.”

Board Chairman Stephen Bannon said he had heard suggestions that a homeowner apply for either a commercial or residential permit and sign an affidavit that they live in the home during the year.

Davis said there is too much room for dishonesty. She went to the root of why she proposed the regulation in the first place.

“My bigger point is that what we’re trying to do is to create more housing options,” Davis said. She accused Abrahams of throwing up roadblocks.

There has to be a numerical limit, otherwise “loopholes” are opened, and the core purpose of controlling prices and freeing up housing stock for locals can’t get traction, she added. She also said people who own property to rent in the short term have “other options.”

The 90-day-limit controversy also resurfaced — and led to a new debate. Board member Garfield Reed said the $31,000 that he calculated a homeowner might make over 90 days “should supplement anyone just fine.” For him, it is “my moral issue,” in what he sees as prioritizing money in the conversation. The bylaw does not specify how much money someone can make, he later noted.

Abrahams and Bannon said the town shouldn’t tell people how much money is enough for them.

“And if they make $70,000, we’ll bless them,” Bannon said, noting that associated money is spent on local businesses like construction and cleaning. He also said he isn’t convinced that the regulation would free housing stock for the workforce.

Several residents told the board they want to see the rancor die down. Frederica Sigel also said numerical residency guidelines speak to the shaky overall “operating principles” on the issue.

“The idea of 150 days means nothing,” Sigel said. “It’s not a legal definition.”

James Garzon said he has seen three families evicted from homes to be converted to condos. Yet, he wants to see a compromise from the board.

“I feel that trying to restrict any profits is not American and unconstitutional,” Garzon said. We should all come to an agreement and a compromise. That’s what makes this country great; that’s what makes Great Barrington great. We want to have a community for all.”

Garzon said he felt the sting of capitalism last weekend, while trying to buy a three-family house to offer as long-term rentals.

“I got outbid, which is the American way,” he said.

Greg Lipper is a full-time resident and consultant who rents out a home in the short term. He said he curates renters, and that makes a big difference in neighborhood culture. He also said the 183- or 150-day rule is too complicated for the town to track and would open up loopholes.

He agrees that the town should keep out corporate investors. The proposal wouldn’t free up housing stock or lower prices, especially in the short term, he said.

Residents of the New York City borough of Manhattan have made offers to buy his home as a weekend house. Lipper spoke to what has bedeviled or blessed — depending on who you are — the Berkshire housing market since the pandemic first hit.

“There’s crazy, crazy money out there from the city, and it’s just until interest rates go way up or we have a deep recession that’s going to overshadow anything we do in the short term,” he said.

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

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