Editorial: Regulate unhosted short-term rentals

By Cynthia Prairie
©2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Telegraph spent months looking into the housing crisis in the central tier of southern Vermont, trying to understand where it stands now and, if necessary, what can be done about it.

Today’s article, Hollowed Community?, which you can read here, pinpoints several factors into the causes of the housing problem, including that no one is building affordable single-family homes in this area nor are our rural communities actively looking to build apartment complexes.

But the rise of the short-term rental industry caught many people by surprise. Particularly troublesome to many is the rise in “unhosted” short-term rentals, where the owner usually lives in another state and rarely if ever stays at the home. Let’s call them “ghost hosts.”

While unhosted STRs didn’t cause the problem, they have exacerbated it, making affordable housing unavailable and unaffordable.

The problem as we see it, is not the hosted short-term rentals, where the owners live onsite, either in the same house or structure on their properties.

The problem is unhosted rentals, where housing stock becomes a business, even for those who claim to use it as their vacation home for a portion of the year. A vacation home that is rented most of the year is a business. That business is then suspended while the owner or unpaying guests are in residence. Both hosted and unhosted STRs are subject to the 9 percent state rooms and meals tax. But a structure used as a business becomes a public building subject to regulations — for example fire safety — that residential buildings are not.

These need to be regulated as businesses, since that is exactly what they are. And among the problems that they can cause (as told to The Telegraph) are:

  1. Too many guests for the number of bedrooms on which septic size is based can cause a septic system to fail, harming neighboring wells and waterways. Fire officials have told us of finding rooms  packed with bunkbeds that would indicate far more guests than allowed.
  2. Guests unfamiliar with  fireplaces and woodstoves can turn a home into a smoke filled building or cause a structure fire.
  3. Unfamiliarity with driving our miles of dirt roads as well as the “interesting” reaction that our vehicles have during mud season means torn up roads and vehicles that have to be pulled out of stream beds. (Yes, I have seen that.)
  4. Unfamiliarity with local laws, such as noise and dog ordinances, ATV use and trash disposal can harm the environment and cause neighborhood disruptions.
  5. The eventual “hollowing out of community,” leaving neighborhoods without full-time neighbors, town functions such elective offices vacant and our vital volunteer fire departments and rescue/ambulance services scrambling for help.

Hotels, inns and bed and breakfasts have a set of regulations they must observe. Here are some recommendations for regulation of unhosted STRs:

  1. Create a registry that includes both hosted and unhosted STRs.
  2. Limit the number of unhosted short-term rentals allowed within a town.
  3. License these unhosted short-term rentals as a business, even if they consider it their “vacation home.” Base that distinction on how many weeks a year the home is not making money.
  4. Charge an annual license fee of say five times the highest listed daily rental fee and include the cleaning and service fees.  Consider starting a housing fund with a portion of the fees.
  5. Require unhosted STRs to have a home inspection (including fire safety) to make sure the home is safe and fit for habitation before it can be listed for rental. Require that guests be provided with detailed instructions on how to use the appliances, furnaces and fireplaces and woodstoves.
  6. Require ghost hosts to post on every room used for sleeping a detailed escape map in case of fire or other emergency and to have installed smoke, fire and CO2 alarms.
  7. Require ghost hosts to display in a prominent area those pertinent ordinances to ensure that their guests’ stays have the least disruption of the surrounding community.
  8. Require ghost hosts to give out their active telephone or cellphone numbers to surrounding neighbors.

Simply because of their impact on community, these suggestions are only a little more than is required by inns and hotels.

We don’t want to discourage tourism and tourism won’t be stopped because of these regulations. But these regulations can ensure the safety of our tourist population as well as that of our communities.

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Filed Under: CommentaryTelegraph Editorial

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Bob Sartini says:

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said but the part about dirt roads and mud season is a bit much. No one comes here in mud season and a lot of places are closed then as well. Maybe an ordinance saying people without green plates must only drive on pavement.

  2. Jeff Seymour says:

    Thank you Cynthia! Well stated and long over due for this.