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Great Barrington residents sound off on short term rental bylaw debate

A screenshot of the Airbnb offerings in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on a map.
Josh Landes
A glance at Great Barrington's Airbnb offerings in early March 2022.

As the Great Barrington, Massachusetts select board continues to hammer out the details of a controversial short term rental bylaw for town meeting in June, community members are making their positions clear.

As it has in other Berkshire County communities, Great Barrington’s path to a short term rental bylaw is proving to be a contentious one. In broad terms, the ongoing debate over how to regulate community members renting out their dwellings through services like Airbnb has two camps. One sees the practice as contributing to the town’s unaffordability and housing crisis, and the other sees local government overstepping its bounds in regards to private property.

With June 6th’s annual town meeting steadily approaching, the pressure is on the select board to produce a bylaw on the hot topic for residents to approve or deny. A bevy of specifics have contributed to the often chippy conversation: who constitutes the operator of a short term rental? Do they live in the dwelling they’re renting? What is a dwelling? How should the town differentiate between first and second homeowners in a community with stark economic disparities?

At Monday night’s virtual select board meeting, some of the 50-odd residents in attendance offered their thoughts on the issue.

“I worry that the board is opening themselves up to legal litigation, because to a certain extent, this is un-American. To dictate what you can or can't do with the property that somebody has purchased is borderline unconstitutional," said Catherine Hood. “I agree that there is a huge affordable issue for properties. It's all over the nation. My brother can't afford to buy a house and I sympathize with him. But saying to people that have already purchased a house what they can or can't do with it is fundamentally a problem.”

“I think it's important to bring into this discussion that Airbnb listings and short term rentals in general lead to higher house prices and rental rates," said Christopher Tucci. “The effect is higher for house prices than it is for rental rates generally, but the effect of higher prices decreases when owner occupancy is a portion of a bylaw. So I think it's important that that distinction is made, because the effect on housing prices, rental rates is directly correlated with ownership and residence on the property and in the unit.”

“Short term rentals are not created equal, and the short term rentals are an age old part of the way we've managed our community since Europeans arrived here," said Dave Long. “We’ve always had large numbers of short term rentals, but we didn't have this kind of overheated market. And the fact that people are getting an extraordinary amount of dollars is the incentive for people to buy up and convert these properties. So if you were to sort of say, you know, some reasonable, affordable level is not taxable, and then tax the hell out of everything above that, then you would give a certain flexibility to at one level of the community but take the money out of what's really driving you guys crazy, which is the conversion of full time properties into short term rentals.”

“I was born in Great Barrington. My dad was born in Great Barrington. My son was born in Great Barrington. It is amazing to me how impossible it is to find housing. I am one of the lucky few who is able to work earning a real living wage. I work doing accounting for two nonprofits in town. A constant topic of conversation is the challenges of maintaining a workforce given that nobody can afford to live here," said Erica Mielke. “There might be a handful of people that are like the retirees that you know, are struggling to be able to take a vacation, so they want to rent out their house, but- We talk about second homeowners. I've done bookkeeping for people for a long time, we're talking about third homeowners, fourth homeowners, fifth homeowners, I mean, very few of the people that are taking the houses off the market, in my experience, are people who are struggling to just maintain a quality of life by renting out their house for a few months out of the year.”

“I have a house that I've lived in for 17 years in Housatonic. I renovated it and raised my family there and now use that home to pay get their college tuition," said Seth Levy. “I don't understand where anybody gets off deciding how much I should be able to make from that house, how many nights I should be able to rent it.”

“Short term rentals are what I would call the lodge-ification of our neighborhoods. I don't want to live in a neighborhood that has a hotel spread out horizontally. And that's what these are, there's no other way to describe it," said James Manning. “Just because technology companies have made it easy for you to become a hotel or a short term renter or a tourist inn or whatever doesn't mean it's a good idea. And we're showing that it's a bad idea by virtue of the fact that investors will just pay more for a house.”

The Great Barrington select board holds its next meeting on March 7th. The continued discussion of the short term rental bylaw is on the agenda.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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