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Our Opinion: Great Barrington's short-term rental rules offer an experiment we should closely watch

Great Barrington annual town meeting 2022 (copy)

Voters raise their cards at Great Barrington's annual town meeting Monday night in the Monument Mountain Regional High School parking lot. Voters approved a short-term rental regulation bylaw and a tax on the rentals that would be plunged into affordable housing needs.

After a contentious bylaw-drafting process, Great Barrington has new rules for short-term rentals. It’s not the only Berkshire community that has struggled to reach consensus on how to deal with this issue. When the new regulations go into effect, this South County town will act as a laboratory of sorts for an attempt at regulating a growing trend that shows no signs of stopping. We’re eager to see how it turns out, and other municipalities likely are as well.

Great Barrington’s short-term rental bylaw, passed at annual town meeting, affects units rented for 30 or fewer days at a time. Homeowners may only have one short-term rental in Great Barrington, which requires registration and is subject to inspection. Short-term rentals are limited to 150 days per year, although this cap only applies if the owner is not on-premises while the unit is rented out. Short-term rental properties must be owned by people instead of corporate entities; LLCs are allowed to register as short-term rental hosts as long as they are owned by a person and not a corporation. A separate warrant item also approved at town meeting establishes a three percent impact fee on short-term rentals to be collected for the town’s Affordable Housing Trust.

Like other communities impacted by the rise of Airbnb, Great Barrington faces the tough task of balancing a multifaceted issue. Short-term rentals allow people to generate some extra income from the property they own, a boon for folks on fixed incomes and those squeezed by property taxes and other costs who want to keep the homes they have. They’re also a conduit for travelers to the area — a big upside for the region’s tourism economy if more than a bit disruptive to traditional lodging businesses.

The nascent short-term rental industry puts more pressure on a widespread housing crisis, eating up stock in towns like Great Barrington where low- and even moderate-income housing is already hard to find. That downward push on housing supply while demand stays high poses problems for overall affordability and availability, factors that have confounded many Berkshire communities. Some also understandably worry about the character of neighborhoods when short-term rentals become increasingly prevalent and the people across the street are no longer familiar faces but an ever-rotating set of Airbnb guests.

This bylaw intends to address all these issues. The 150-day cap is intended to let homeowners still get some short-term rental income if they wish while trying to prevent residences from turning into de-facto motels year-round. Barring investor-only corporate ownership of short-term rental properties aims to prevent business entities from gobbling up a critical fraction of local housing stock in an already tight market. Inspections and registration requirements are sensible attempts to keep public safety from getting lost in the shuffle of this new lodging sector rapidly growing in residential neighborhoods. Additionally, the three percent tax on short-term rental income tacked on in a separate warrant item seeks to address bylaw opponents’ argument that it would do nothing to directly benefit affordable housing in town, although just how much benefit the Affordable Housing Trust can expect from this revenue is unclear.

Our Opinion: In the zone — a sharper focus for crafting short-term rental regulations

These are the bylaw’s intentions; whether they pan out as workable policy to meaningfully mitigate any of these matters remains to be seen. As multiple Berkshire municipalities struggled to put together short-term rental regulation proposals, we used this space to suggest a zoning-based approach to short-term rental regulation; this would acknowledge the extent to which these units often operate more as hotels than residences, and as such subject them to special permitting in residential-only districts. The margin by which Great Barrington’s bylaw passed, however, suggests a zoning-based approach might not surive the inevitable contentiousness. Zoning changes require a two-thirds vote at town meetings, which Great Barrington’s bylaw fell just short of at 207-111.

Great Barrington’s polarizing debate over the substance of its bylaw underscores just how big of a problem municipal policy-makers face when making good-faith efforts at regulating short-term rentals, even when many residents agree that something should be done. Is Great Barrington’s approach the solution? Is any municipal approach enough to grapple with this unwieldy issue? This newly approved bylaw, effective Jan. 1, offers an experiment we can all watch. We wish Great Barrington luck and look forward to the opportunity to assess its effectiveness down the line.

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