EDITORIAL: Where do we put ’em?

THEY’LL BE SWARMING again before you know it. Not the bees. They’d be welcome. No, it’s the tourists and the second homers, taking up our parking spaces, breathing our relatively fresh air, spending money on our stuff and posting selfies that only draw more of them.

Now they don’t even go home at night. Not to their home or maybe it’s what they call their home, but it’s not their real home. It was better way back when, if they had to stay, you could herd them all into one or two big hotels so you knew where they were.

But now there’s Airbnb. Don’t try to pronounce it. If you still have dial-up internet service you may not know about this online service that matches people looking for a place to stay for a night, a weekend, or a week or two with people willing to rent a room or rooms to them on that basis. Short-term rentals, they call them.

Communities around the county have begun to regulate these rentals for different reasons, The county is considering taxing the practice. The city of Hudson collects nearly a quarter-million dollars annually for its combination of a registration fee and a 4% tax. No wonder this trend has caught on with lawmakers.

The Columbia County Chamber of Commerce says there are 390 Airbnb short-term rentals in the county and that 300 of them are in Hudson. The figures for the whole county last year show $5.7 million in revenue–the third largest amount for this type of business in the Capital Region, according to the Columbia Economic Development Corporation. That’s what 33,200 guests spent here for accommodations. If the total revenue were divided evenly, which it’s not, it would mean that every Airbbnb host earned over $14,600 for the year before laundry and housecleaning expenses.

The Chatham Town Board is about to vote on a proposal to permit and limit short-term rentals, which the board defines as any rental that lasts 30 days or less consecutively. The town’s concern, according to a Frequently Asked Questions fact sheet produced by the board, is that the explosion of short-term rentals will gut the already tight affordable housing market. That’s because the allure of big bucks to be made from renting short-term will inflate the value of those homes so much that low- and middle-income tenants, and some potential homebuyers, will be squeezed out.

It’s an intriguing theory that sounds a lot like a prediction of a bubble in this part of the real estate market. And we know what happens to bubbles. Or maybe the popularity of short-term rentals signals a big cultural shift. A decade ago Hudson had very few decent lodgings. Now it has several hotels and 300 short-term rentals. Affordable housing is hard to find now, but blaming that on the housing market overlooks the long, cruel stagnation of wage growth and the continuing transfer of wealth to the wealthiest. At least Chatham should get credit for trying to referee the transition to a short-term rental economy.

The basic proposal for regulating these rentals is reasonable. It defines short-term rentals as home occupations. But the current zoning law doesn’t mention short-term rentals, which means everybody who’s renting out a room or more online is technically violating the law right now. The new law would make it legal, but only up to five bedrooms. This can be either in the home of the owner or in an “accessory dwelling” on the same property as the homeowner’s dwelling. There’s also a requirement for a special permit from the Planning Board for three or more bedrooms.

And then there’s the requirement that this new short-term rental option is only available to owners who live in their dwelling 183 days each year. Half a year plus a day. The justification made for this requirement says less time than a half-year means the property is “not a primary residence of the owner” and is purely “commercial.” Says who?

That restriction is unenforceable by any remotely democratic means. It taints the whole exercise of drafting the law. Does it mean that in Chatham anyone who has commercial motive is a criminal? The 183-day requirement also reveals a lack of understanding of how much some people must travel and adjust their schedules in order to make a living in these times.

Make owners say in writing their Airbnb is their primary residence and you can only have one of those. It’s a better solution than rental police.

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