Editorial: Rental resolve

A proposal for restrictions on vacation rentals in Bar Harbor is headed to the Town Council later this month, having survived a Planning Board hearing last week by the skin of its teeth. The plan will go to voters in November, if the council decides it should.

That close Planning Board vote was only the latest in a discussion that’s been bumpy all the way along. Board member John Fitzpatrick put it this way: “Are we able to take action that’s not going to please everybody but in the long term will make it a better community for everyone that wants to live here?”

While most participants in the public hearing last week opposed the plan, other residents at listening sessions earlier this year spoke of having to move several times a year for years on end because of the dearth of year-round rentals.

The town’s Housing Policy Framework calls for developing restrictions to “curtail the conversion of year-round housing to short-term rentals,” “retain neighborhood integrity by ensuring that residential neighborhoods do not become lodging zones” and “support increased enforcement” of the rules.

A 2019 study by economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research, UCLA and USC found that an increase in Airbnb listings leads to an increase in rents and home prices and decreases the supply of long-term rental units. The effect is stronger in ZIP codes with a lower share of owner occupancy, the authors note. Bar Harbor fits the bill, with 61 percent of the housing stock being owner occupied year-round, well below the Maine average of 73 percent, according to American Community Survey data as compiled for the recent housing study commissioned by the Island Housing Trust.

Because the goal of the regulations is to get the percentage of housing units used this way down over time, say to seven percent of the housing stock, an advisory group initially proposed back-dating the ordinance change to prevent a rush on new license applications ahead of the new rules taking effect. The Town Council and Planning Board agreed instead to propose an emergency moratorium, the one that came up just as the pandemic emergency began and the second time an emergency moratorium has been proposed and rejected.

Understandably, some property owners are angry at the prospect of new limits. But it’s not the case that the town wants to beat up on property owners because the staff has nothing better to do, or that hotels are beating down the door to protect their businesses. It’s a real part of the real problem of housing availability and affordability.

Conversion of houses and apartments to seasonal employee housing is a bigger issue than vacation rentals, some have argued. The two issues are related in that both have contributed to a decline in year-round rental units, but the “what about”-ism has been maddening. Both need to be addressed and that’s what the town has been trying to do.

A large fraction of residential real estate listings mentions actual or potential vacation rental income. And each time in the last few years when the town has debated zoning changes allowing higher density, a primary question at public hearings has been how to prevent the new units from becoming vacation rentals.

It’s gotten to the point that a property owner choosing to operate a year-round rental is a philanthropist because vacation rentals offer far more revenue, at least until the market becomes absolutely saturated. Some homeowners say they’re buying, and renting for now because they hope to retire here in the future. But if the neighborhoods are too far out of balance, will Bar Harbor still be a community they want to retire to when the time comes?

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