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 — Some are calling the proposed bylaw a “land grab” that simply will result in homes sold at high market prices, leaving those who need affordable or moderately priced housing out of luck.

Others say it is the key to fixing the housing crunch that hurts those who can’t afford housing in this town, and to preserve neighborhood cohesion and keep out greedy investors.

At a joint Select Board and Planning Board meeting Monday, residents pushed back on the creation of a bylaw to restrict short-term rentals only to those whose home is their primary residence. The idea is to use the regulation — it is backed by a fine of $1,000 a night — to try to force second-home owners into the long-term rental market, or to sell.

The hope is that either way, the houses would be shunted into available housing.

Some officials and residents said this assumes a number of unknowns and neglects to factor in the high cost of homeownership in town. They worry that there are too many unique situations for a blanket policy, and that it could hurt the delicate tourist economy in which visitors prefer the privacy of short-term renting.

To enforce the rule, a company called Granicus would scrape the data from listing sites and cross-check it with assessor data, said Select Board Vice Chair Leigh Davis, who researched regulations in other communities and is driving the proposal. Each search would cost $45, Davis said.

“Great Barrington has reached a tipping point,” Davis said about the town’s housing shortage, and the way short-term rentals appear to affect neighborhoods. She suggested that the town look at it “through the lens of people of color, seniors and those living on low incomes, who are disproportionately affected by the proliferation of short-term rentals.”

On AirDNA, which lists short-term rentals online, Davis found that, currently, about 80 homes are available that appear to not be primary residences. Should voters approve the bylaw at annual town meeting, these are homes that, she said, could hit the market as long-term rentals or for homeownership.

Should Great Barrington control how homeowners rent their property? Early bylaw talks stir resistance

“This could be workforce housing, this could be housing for seniors downsizing, this could be for people starting out,” she said. “The beauty of this is that the homes exist in our neighborhoods.”

She acknowledged that the bylaw alone might not solve the affordable housing crisis, but it would force the second-home owner into a decision. “Do they just want to sit on the homes and just use it as a second home, or get some income from it,” she said.

Sign-up for The Berkshire Eagle's free newsletters

Guessing game

Cities and towns across the U.S. have approved a variety of short-term rental regulations to avoid problems that might include uptick in the community’s rent costs, as a Harvard Business Review study found. Anecdotes over the past few years have painted a picture of Great Barrington neighborhoods overrun with investor-run Airbnbs.

“I’ve seen short-term rental properties gobbling up long-term rental properties,” said resident Nan Wile. “We need to do something about restricting something that stomps all over the long-term renters who are already here and being evicted.”

Yet, so far, there is little hard evidence that this particular trend is widespread. In Lenox, a 2019 regulation capping short-term rentals at 75 days per year was based on a “feeling that community cohesion was at risk,” she said.

Similarly, the basis for the Great Barrington proposal is full of guesses, said Select Board member Ed Abrahams.

Great Barrington Select Board and Planning Board

Great Barrington officials discuss a proposed bylaw to regulate short-term rentals that would take the option away from second-home owners.

“We don’t know how many [short-term rentals] are corporate-owned versus second-home owners,” he said. “We don’t have that information.”

Several residents said they also don’t know if second-home owners would be willing to become landlords, or drop the cost of lease payments.

“If we look at the price those homes sold for, we will never be renting at a fee low enough for the workforce to rent them,” said Kathy Plungis.

“If homeowners like us can’t rent it, it’s going to go on sale at a high price point,” said Ranakdevi Londoner, speaking about a home on Francis Avenue that she and her husband fixed up and are renting, though they live in Sheffield. She didn’t like the characterization of people like them as “money- hungry speculators,” saying that they not only employ local workers, but contribute to charities.

Others said building affordable housing, or other creative solutions, using short-term rental taxes — they are paid by the renters — are the solutions to the housing crunch.

“This [bylaw] is a hugely indirect response to a pressing problem,” said Peter Frank, who called the proposed bylaw a “convoluted land grab where you take property rights of people who are legitimate homeowners. It’s low-hanging fruit by trying to go after people who don’t live in town and who might not be able to vote on this.”

Keep taxing short-term rentals and use it to pay for workforce housing solutions, said others, like Craig Okerstrom Lang. Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon said the amount of that revenue in the coffers is forthcoming. Bannon said there will be more comment sessions before the proposed bylaw heads to the Planning Board for review.

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