“Virtuous signals” or good governance? Great Barrington residents divided over Airbnb rules now head for June vote | South Berkshires
GREAT BARRINGTON — After months of debate and delay, a measure to regulate short-term rentals in Great Barrington is heading for a vote.
Proponents say the rules are worth a try to protect neighborhoods, ease tight housing and moderate prices and rents.
Others say trying to limit short-term house rentals won’t solve the housing crisis or make it easier for rents to rise and hurt people who need rental income from their properties.
The select council voted 3-1 on Monday to send a revised draft of the proposal to voters at the June 6 annual town hall meeting, ending a deadlock over perceived conflicts of interest involving three council members. The panel was able to resume discussions on the measure after earlier legal issues sidelined it.
A citizen petition directed to a municipal assembly will propose another version of the measure which does not cap rental days.
In a compromise, the new draft official rules raise the cap from 90 to 150 on the number of days a year a home can be rented out. It also no longer contains a clause that people can rent more than one property if they did so by January 1, 2022.
The removal of this clause allowed Vice President Leigh Davis to continue deliberating, after the state Ethics Commission informed her that she had a conflict of interest following questions about a property rental near her home.
Davis, who is leading the proposal, referred The Eagle’s questions about it to the commission. Commission spokesman Gerry Tuoti said he could “neither confirm nor deny whether anyone requested or received the commission’s opinion”.
Davis’ disclosure, filed with the city clerk, says that by removing the clause, Davis’ “financial interest” in the settlement is shared by “a substantial segment of the city’s population.” The commission defines this as 10% or more.
A vote on Monday to put the clause back in the draft failed on a 2-2 vote, with board chairman Stephen Bannon and member Ed Abrahams voting in favor of reinstating that language.
That didn’t sit well with opponents of the plan who spoke at Monday’s board meeting. One said removing the clause put Davis’ interests ahead of the taxpayers.
“The whole process seems like a sham,” said Francois Coeytaux.
Davis says the city is trying to address a housing crisis that is affecting the “safety and stability” of the community and what she called “the declining quality of life in Great Barrington.”
Davis says the new 150-day cap will help balance interests, including those who need short-term rental income. She said the proposed settlement could free up homes for the long-term rental market.
Board member Abrahams continues to oppose capping rental days, saying it’s harmful and unnecessary. His detractors point to his own appearance of conflict of interest, since his partner rents his old house on Airbnb.
Residents said the settlement did not take into account residents’ personal circumstances and would not solve the housing crisis.
The settlement is a “signal of virtue”, said resident Daniel Seitz, and could lead to legal problems for Great Barrington if the rule is later “construed as a substantial impairment”.
David Long called the settlement “grossly ill-conceived” and said family issues, including divorce and death, can cause landlords to seek rental income.
Longtime resident Julie Peretti said Airbnb rentals “saved us” and helped her family keep their property. She highlighted Berkshire’s growing hotel spending and how short-term rentals are attracting economically diverse and interesting visitors to the county.
Those who support the bylaw say it will prevent people or entities from using townhouses solely as a business opportunity to the detriment of neighborhood integrity.
“Let’s take care of our families, not our bank accounts,” Nan Wile said.
Erica Mielke said she fears the town will turn into Cape Cod, with workers being transported by bus.
Barbara Barak has warned the town could become a popular summer spot on Long Island, NY
“I have friends who are in the North Fork and I’ve seen their communities become transient,” said Barak, who lives near an Airbnb that drew ire last year for violations of the noise. “It’s terrifying what can happen, so I think you’re putting the brakes on something that’s slowly spiraling out of control.”
Julie Anidjar pointed the finger at her neighbor on “The Hill” which is now sandwiched between two homes recently sold and placed on Airbnb.
Kristin Grippo, who recently faced eviction, just found out her rent will double next month. She said she understands the settlement is not a solution to the housing crisis. But it’s an important conversation.
Proponents of a regulation limiting short-term rentals to 90 days a year say the harms outweigh the benefits, and the loss of some future tax revenue due to the regulations is worth it. Others say the city needs all the revenue it can get.
“I think what he does is talk about what we stand for and against,” Grippo said. “But what if it makes something available to a family…it could be my family.”
The state banned rent control in 1994, but there are other things communities can do. They include expanding rental assistance, redeveloping run-down properties and continuing incentives to build affordable housing, as recommended by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
The agency’s 2020 Housing Needs Assessment noted that if most of the city’s 178 short-term rentals were to be converted to long-term rentals, it would add another 16% to the rental stock. But short-term rentals are also important, especially for households that are “cost-burdened,” the agency said.
That’s the dividing line in a city whose median household income is $56,250, according to the US Census.
Officials say they want to prevent corporations from buying homes and excluding residents.
A number of homes are owned by Limited Liability Companies or LLCs. The regulation would allow limited liability companies to rent under the same conditions as provided for in the regulations, but only if they are owned by a real person. If the bylaw is passed, the city will hire Granicus, a software company, to track ownership of the assets. Critics call it “spyware”.