Hollowed Community? Residents ring alarm over growth of unhosted short-term rentals

By Cara Philbin and
Cynthia Prairie
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Housing in the rural central tier of southern Vermont always has been dependent upon single-family homes. While Chester – with a population of 3,005 – has two purpose-built, townhouse-style apartment complexes, they are rare in most villages.

Instead, residents in this east-west corridor have found housing in single-family homes to purchase and apartments to rent in repurposed larger homes or other buildings.

Despite waiting lists for low-income or senior housing, that formula seemed to have satisfied the majority of the populace – until Covid-19 hit the East Coast in March of 2020. The pandemic brought with it “Covid refugees” with a strong desire to escape the uncomfortably crowded, but locked-down cities. And these refugees also brought with them hefty wallets that enabled bidding wars that some realtors said reminded them of what happened after 9-11: homes bought sight-unseen, properties without a perc test.

On the Cover and in the logo: Original photo by Mike Van Schoonderwalt for Pexels/Redesigned art by Cynthia Prairie

The beginning of Covid created a minor housing crisis for some local residents who were looking to buy. But most seemed to understand the market flux. And many believed that the refugees would stay and grow the communities.

In the nick of time

David Lewis, who is in his early 40s, finally owns his first home. But his first home wasn’t his first choice. He moved into a rental home in Andover in 2018 with his sights set on buying it. That one-bedroom, one-bath home on 4 acres was a perfect place for his gardens.

David Lewis outside his Windham home. <small>All photos by Cynthia Prairie unless otherwise noted.</small>

David Lewis outside his Windham home. All photos by Cynthia Prairie.

Lewis and his landlord settled on a price of between $110,000 and $120,000.  But before any deal could be struck, Covid hit, bringing with it the pandemic influx of homebuyers. “As soon as Covid happened,” Lewis says, “the owner had a higher price in mind.” Lewis adds that the owner “really tried to work with me. But with the prices rising, well, you really can’t blame him.” Lewis had to move out in September of 2020. “Now,” says Lewis, “it’s a full-time, short-term rental, unhosted.” In short-term rental jargon, a hosted rental is where the property owner lives on site or very nearby. The owner of an unhosted rental lives farther away – even hundreds or thousands of miles. An unhosted rental may be overseen by a local property manager.

Lewis was one of the lucky ones. He sent out feelers and was able to find a small house – one bedroom and one bath – on a quarter of an acre in Windham, which he bought for $89,000. Lewis says the home is a bit smaller than the Andover home, and he had to do some work on the place to secure his loan, but he’s been able to make do with the smaller plot of land.

If Lewis had waited much longer, his Windham home would likely have been priced out of his reach. According to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the average sale price for a single-family home increased almost 40 percent, between 2019 and 2021, and now exceeds what the average in-state family can afford by more than $100,000.

Lewis has become part of the small Windham community and is currently looking into the impact of short-term rentals. One of those impacts, he fears, is a loss of community, explaining that “you lose volunteers for the fire department and other services you need to run” when so many of your homes are unhosted STRs.

Short-term rentals, by the numbers

Short-term rentals didn’t create the housing problem, but some people believe that they have made it worse, and town select boards have begun to take notice.

Marion Major of the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, which seeks to find homes for area residents, called it a “complex scenario because the housing crisis has been building for so long and Covid exacerbated it. Then the idea that people could buy homes and then put them on the market for short-term rentals full time (and) out of the financial reach” of local residents occurred.

Just how big of a problem is this? It’s difficult to pinpoint because, as Major says, “There isn’t really centralized data … there has been conversation to bring it together through the state but that hasn’t been done. Neither has a statewide rental registry, which has been talked about for years.”

‘There isn’t really centralized data … there has been conversation to bring it together through the state but that hasn’t been done. Neither has a statewide rental registry, which has been talked about for years.’

Marion Major
Windham & Windsor Housing Trust

As a matter of fact, the state legislature passed legislation that would have created a rental registry and a revolving loan fund to help with home purchases and allocated funding to bring rentals up to code. It was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott in July of 2021.

AirDNA is a company that tracks “whole house” short-term rentals through rental websites. It defines “whole house STRs”  to mean a complete home, apartment or accessory dwelling,  either hosted or unhosted, but not a room rented out. To further explore the data, click here.

In looking at the growth of these “whole house” short-term rentals through Windsor and Windham counties, the trajectory is up.

Windsor County went from 1,142 in January 2019 to 1,458 in August 2022. Windham County went from 1,076 to 1,563 in the same time period. What is interesting in both cases is that each county saw a dip of whole house short-term rentals in May 2020 down to 868 and 764 respectively, which could indicate a “Covid dip,” where owners were either pulling their property off the rental markets or using their STR as their full-time home.

But despite the “Covid dip,” the rebound for some towns is surprising. Again, these numbers are for both hosted and unhosted STRs.

'Whole-house' short-term rentals by town

or Jurisdiction
January 2019May 2020 August 2022Highest month
81 in August 2022
26 in July 2022
58 in June 2022
37 in October 2020
101 in June 2022
South Londonderry
183 in August 2022
586 in March 2022
39 in October 2019
1,563 in August 2022
1,542 in June 2022
9,757 in August 2022
Source: AirDNA.

No figures were available for the towns of Andover and Windham, although David Lewis of Windham says he found 71 current listings in Windham, a portion of Jamaica and a small part of Townshend.

These are lucrative businesses, according to AirDNA data, with average prices in those towns spanning from a low of $200 a night in 2019 to a high of more than $600 a night currently, depending on the town.

The prices are obviously geared toward vacationers and not to the average Vermont renter, according to the Vermont Housing Needs Assessment of 2020, which in 2019, found that 74 percent of Vermont’s renters survived on less than the median income. Most spent 30 to 50 percent or more of their income on rent, while the average tenant earned $13.40 per hour.

When a house is not a home

In Vermont, with a large number of second-homes, it isn’t unusual for houses to be empty for a good part of the year.

But residents started noticing the number of single-family homes that were being listed on short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO and how neighboring homes that once had families living in them were now hosting only vacationers for most of the nights they were occupied.

This was something different. It was a twist on the typical Airbnb model that had been normal throughout the country: A homeowner opens a portion of their home or a suite or attached apartment to guests to earn extra money to pay for college, the mortgage, necessities or a vacation. That’s a model Tyler Maas believes in.

Maas, director of Program and Housing Development with the Vermont State Housing Authority, says, “I find them (short-term rentals) to actually help create housing stability, in a lot of cases … because Vermont has one of the largest discrepancies between cost of living and income. Nobody’s making any money and housing is getting expensive. So people are coming up with ways to make that affordable.”

‘I find them (short-term rentals) to actually help create housing stability, in a lot of cases … because Vermont has one of the largest discrepancies between cost of living and income. … So people are coming up with ways to make that affordable.’

Tyler Maas
Vermont State Housing Authority

But instead, these homes were being bought for the sole purpose of renting them out. They were now businesses – renting for an average of more than $250 per night — and no one living in them full time.

Colleen Garvey has had more personal experience with selling and buying homes in the past three years and with short-term rentals than many people. She and her husband moved from North Carolina to Chester in 2019, buying a house in the village that they then sold to be close to their daughter in Georgia during the pandemic in 2021.

It was a hot real estate market and, Garvey recalls, “We had so many offers it was ridiculous.” The person who they sold it to wrote to them of his love for the area and its importance to him. Garvey now says she was chagrined to learn that their former home appears to be a full-time, unhosted short-term rental. The new owner could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts.

It’s not that the Garveys are against STRs – as a matter of fact, they have hosted guests in their homes in North Carolina, Chester and in Georgia. But the difference, says Garvey, is that they too have always lived in the home, alongside their guests. Besides the supplemental income, Garvey says, being a host has been “a social thing for us. We now have friends from all over the world.”

When the Garveys decided to move back to Vermont in 2022, they found the real estate market still hot and a home in Chester impossible to secure. But they finally made an offer on a home in nearby Andover, and are just beginning to consider a kitchen rehab.

She says she later learned that they were not the highest bidder on their Andover home. Instead, she says, she heard that the owners rejected the highest bidder because he intended to turn the home into an unhosted short-term rental.

Garvey says one difference between hosted and unhosted is simple: Control. There is no control over the guests’ behavior when it is unhosted, citing some complaints – including noise and lack of upkeep – she has heard from her former Chester neighbors.

As hosts, she says, “You would think that our guests were our personal friends or family.” The Garveys currently do not host STR guests.

A home to live in, and supplemental income

Polly Montgomery and her husband Ian host short-term visitors in their Stone Village home in Chester, living in the attached home behind the stone house that they extensively rehabbed to accommodate paying guests, but mainly friends and family.

From left, Ian and Polly Montgomery have coffee in the rental portion of their Stone Village home.

She’s a proponent of short-term rentals such as hers. “When people buy a building for (short-term rentals), they’ll fix it up and take care of the yard, and make everything look so much better than some of these rundown rentals,” she says. “When we bought this house, the front stone house was another dwelling, and that was a (long-term) rental, and it was in horrible shape.”

Even Chester Planning Commission member Peter Hudkins maintains a short-term rental. It’s his late mother’s home, near his own, and he has been keeping it going to preserve it for the next generation of his family.

“People think that short-term rentals are just these developers, but a lot of them are homeowners who need money because it’s expensive to live here,” says Maas of the Vermont State Housing Authority.

“I have been helping people build accessory dwelling units – ADUs – for … almost 10 years. … they’re not just rich folk from out of town who want to make even more money. But they are middle class, more often than not, getting close to retirement age and wondering how they can stay in their home,” Maas says.

Maas also emphasizes the importance of tourism on the state: “You want to see businesses closing? Restaurants closing? If we don’t have people coming into short-term rentals, our state will face a much worse fate than its housing issues. Our economy would not survive without the tourism.”

The upside to STRs is that they bring in tourists to frequent Vermont’s shops and restaurants and keep people working in maintenance, housekeeping and lawn care jobs. But it can also make it harder for those same workers to find nearby affordable housing.

The Mongtomerys in the kitchen of their accessory dwelling.

The Mongtomerys in the kitchen of their accessory dwelling.

One resident involved in the short-term rental support industry, who asked for anonymity because of their position, has struggled to find an affordable home to buy. They would only say, “I do feel like Airbnb’s are contributing to this affordable housing crisis but also feel like there’s a lack of higher wage opportunities. Maybe the out-of-state hosts is a symptom of this bigger picture. No easy answers — it’s very complex considering Vermont’s values.”

“At least three … people who have worked for me have struggled to find housing,” says Charlie Rimer, who works for a ski shop in  Ludlow. “One guy is kind of couch-surfing, until he can get a tiny house built, hopefully, before winter. A couple other friends were given their 60-day notice and had to get out, and ended up in Claremont” in New Hampshire.

Already pinched by the inflated real estate prices of life in a Vail resort town, many blame Ludlow’s dearth of affordable housing on its explosion of short-term rental businesses.

‘Hollowing out the community’

But ski mountain housing doesn’t address the immediate problems or the future ones within rural communities like Chester, Grafton, Andover, Londonderry, Windham and Weston.

Chester resident Kathy Giurtino in her garden. She is concerned about the 'hollowing out' of her community.

Chester resident Kathy Giurtino in her garden. She is concerned about the ‘hollowing out’ of her community.

Kathy Giurtino, a resident of Chester’s Stone Village, says she grew alarmed when guests of a nearby unhosted STR wandered onto her back field. Her first thought was liability. “If they step in a woodchuck hole and break a leg, or if they get too close to the riverbank where it’s caved down … who are they going to sue? They’re going to sue me,” she says, adding that she hates No Trespassing signs, but “we’re at the point now when we’re thinking we’re going to have to put them up…”

Two other residents who contacted The Telegraph about their personal adverse experiences when dealing with guests at unhosted neighboring short-term rentals decided they did not want to speak on the record.

Among the issues cited as reasons to regulate short-term rentals are:

  • Increased noise and traffic due to larger groups renting the houses
  • The possibility of repeated rentals by large groups overtaxing septic systems in rural STRs which could have an impact on neighbors’ wells
  • Fire safety issues with overcrowding and inexperience with fireplaces and woodstoves.
  • Ignorance of or just plain ignoring of the local laws including parking, leash laws, burning of trash, use of ATVs on public roads among others.

And both Giurtino and David Lewis of Windham see long-term consequences to unhosted short-term rentals.

Giurtino calls it a “hollowing out of community.”

“Joe Blow and his family that want to live here, they can’t do it,” she says. “It’s deteriorating the entire affordable housing market. … If these houses are going to be sitting empty, except when a short-term rental comes in, you’re hollowing out the community.”

“Given the problems that Vermont has with affordable housing, if they allow these unhosted short-term rentals to continue, they’re cutting their housing market off at the knees,” she says.

‘It’s deteriorating the entire affordable housing market. … If these houses are going to be sitting empty, except when a short-term rental comes in, you’re hollowing out the community.’

Kathy Giurtino

Lewis agrees and believes unhosted short-term rentals are “stretching the idea of residential zoning. As a landowner, I understand that people say ‘you can’t tell me what to do with my property.’ But you are already being told what to do.”

Lewis continues, “If you are renting out a place on your property, and you live there, that is different. Unhosted? That’s a business.”

Lewis fears the loss of a functioning rural community that depends on its full-time residents  to run town government.  When you no longer have that “actual community” because of so many unhosted STRs, he says, “you lose volunteers for the fire department and other services you need.”

Like Garvey, Montgomery agrees that unhosted short-term rentals can be problematic.

“We’re there on site, and I think that makes a huge difference in this whole … situation,” she says.

Says Giurtino, “The hosted rentals, I don’t see those as a problem at all. They rent out a guest cottage, or maybe it’s a duplex and they rent out one side, or they have a couple of rooms they rent out. But the people live there, so they aren’t taking anything away from the community.”

Seeking solutions

The Vermont Housing Needs Assessment found that nearly 18,000 of Vermont’s rental households were at a high risk of eviction because of housing costs, and that low-income housing stock in Windsor County would increase by only 20 units through 2025. Windsor is the 4th most populace county in the state with 58,000 residents, while Windham County ranks 5th with 46,000.

Meanwhile, 52 percent of Vermont’s largest multifamily buildings of 50 units or more were located in Chittenden County, home to a quarter of Vermont households and 169,000 residents with about 90 percent of new homes to be built there through 2025.

Marion Major of the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust says that her organization has proposed to build 30 new apartment units in the town of Windsor and that they have 27 currently under construction in Bellows Falls.

Maas of the Vermont State Housing Authority points to the wealthier ski resorts. “The mountains, I think they need to create housing. They pack people in sardine-can apartments to be lift operators and such … they should be required to house them. Ten years from now, you’ll be making a profit on those houses, right? This isn’t a bad investment, but build on it, and you’ll be able to attract people to work.”

While it will be helpful, it won’t fulfill the housing needs of the future, where the state is predicting that by 2025, 79 percent of existing housing will be owned by those 45 and older.

This trend of young professionals and families forced to compete for less than a quarter of existing housing inventory has persisted for more than five years. Add to that the growing possibility of Vermont becoming a haven for those seeking to flee the country’s impending crisis: climate change.

Unhosted short-term rentals are ‘stretching the idea of residential zoning.  … If you are renting out a place on your property, and you live there, that is different. Unhosted? That’s a business.’

David Lewis

Major says the Vermont Housing Improvement Program could benefit many renters by helping property owners rehab buildings for long-term renting. Once a homeowner gets a grant and rehabs the building, he has to rent it out at an affordable rate for five years.

Maas also suggested that towns adopt the 1 percent optional tax, a suggestion that came up during Andover Select Board meetings. “I would encourage towns to incentivize building accessory dwellings for long term rentals,” he says. “If there’s, say, a higher percentage of the taxes on second homes, like a higher tax rate, and 1 percent for housing, you create housing trust funds out of it — housing incentives.”

Giurtino and others also believe that unhosted short-term rentals need to be regulated. And some see a rental registry is a good place to start, at least to get a handle on the exact number and location.

As town governments begin to get a handle on these issues, those changes will likely come. Following that, the main concern just might be what to do about an oversaturated short-term rental market with those once-lucrative businesses going up for sale or remaining empty, hollowing out the community in another way.

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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. Willy Williams says:

    Look STRs have been around in these towns for over 40 years. Now they have become some kind of problem? They have been in Andover since I was a kid and have never been a problem. So what if someone from the city has to wait for EMS or Fire? Why is that a big deal? STRs bring jobs, they bring people to the state , people who spend money in our shops, restaurants etc… The homes need someone to mow the lawn, clean the house, tend the gardens and do the maintenance. The people who are complaining about them are probably the same people who moved into Vermont from the city and now call themselves “Vermonters”. STRs are not the problem the problem is people want VT to stay VT, for that to happen good jobs, high paying Jobs can only be so many, because programs like ACT 250 discourages development. The same people that don’t want STRs are the same people who wouldn’t want a company like Volvo to build a plant in Chester, or Bowing to build aircraft in Springfield. Because then there would be lots of jobs, good paying jobs and people would have money to buy homes. But Vermont and the people of Vermont do not want this. So it is what it is. It has been this way for the 43 years I have been alive. I now live in SC the the town I run my business in has 2700 housing units and 1400 are STRs. It’s the whole economy. I can’t afford to live there so I live a short drive away. So I get a chuckle when I read that there are 80 STRs in Chester and it’s becoming a problem. You can have development and progress or you can keep Vermont the way it is and let people who can afford it, buy second homes to rent out as STRs. This keeps the economy rolling the same way it has been for the last 40 years. It will all work itself out without small town Government trying to make up new laws that will eventually choke out STRs which are Vermonts economy and then you will have a huge problem because ACT 250 and high corporate taxes, high property taxes, high workmans comp insurance all has choked out the good union paying factory type jobs. In Vermont, the manufacturing rate is $6.67 per $100 of payroll, In South Carolina, that same classification for manufacturing is $2.23 per $100 of payroll, roughly one-third. So all I am saying is be careful what laws you pass or your may be shooting yourselves in the foot. Don’t create a problem when it really dosen’t exist. The real problems are ACT 250 and high corporate taxes, high property taxes, high workmans comp tax. Do something about that, you will keep people in Vermont who can afford to actually live there.

  2. Vermont has lost its way, through many state wide programs, lack of foresight and planning , I fear Vermonters are being driven out through the high taxation, and lack of economic development . Where are the jobs? Why are we ignoring the comprehensive planning needed for Vermont’s future? Without the “four legs of a chair”, including job creation , infrastructure, food security and housing , we are literally headed to a Vermont where there will only be very rich, or very poor. The workforce/ middle class needs are not being considered by our “Super Majority” legislators.

    Tax credits, grants and complicated investment structuring to benefit, so-called, “Non profit” developers are buying up land, homes and political connections, as they claim to be the answer to the housing needs. These developments/ investments offer a good return on investments by, “For Profit organizations”. Unfortunately , this has impacted the work force and long term Vermont families . It takes a year to qualify for “in state” tuition and just a few bits of paperwork to qualify for benefits , including : Food stamps, housing vouchers, healthcare, and more. While it’s wonderful that Vermont is so generous, these programs are funded by the tax payers, many of whom can no longer afford to stay in Vermont, due to the high cost of living. Where is the logic in this?
    With over 250 million climate change and war refugees moving inward and North, where are the jobs, transportation infrastructure and support services?

    Tourism is the number one industry in Vermont, but those of us who “serve”, are fewer and the workforce depleted , due to a lack of work force housing, a livable wage, entitlement programs, “which disincentivize working”, as well as high taxes . It’s time for a massive overhaul of the entitlement programs, and the legislators that created these programs. The investors / developers that benefit from these tax credit programs need accountability. A balanced approach, with job development , public transportation , social services, and diverse housing is needed to reduce the taxes/ cost of living on families that are struggling to stay in Vermont.

    Vermont has a great reputation , let’s match that reputation with logic and planning for a growing population, and a vibrant future.
    Did you know, that the cost to build a two bedroom “Affordable Housing Apartment “, costs the taxpayers $450,000? I question the great land grab of the “Housing Trusts”, and the “For Profit”, investors and the complicit legislators. Where is the logic?

  3. Raymond Makul says:

    In addition to the issues addressed in this excellent article, there are public safety issues for the renters. Andover has no fire department, relies on Chester for EMS services, and frankly, response times are “leisurely.”

    The city and suburban renters come from locales where a call to 911 results in an on site response in five minutes or less. Not an hour or more, as is the case in much of Andover. Andover simply does not have the emergency response infrastructure to host these renters safely. And a failure to provide timely emergency response exposes the town to possible litigation. Some in Andover don’t want to do anything until “there is a problem.” The problem is here, biting us hard. Eight now.

  4. Stu Lindberg says:

    On my rural road in Cavendish I have seen small round yard signs that say Vacasa(short term rental) on them in front of houses that were once the generational homes of Vermonters I knew from my childhood. These people are now gone. The sense of loss I feel over these people is only exacerbated by the fact that the spiritual descendants of these people, young working men, women and their young families, some of who are my friends, cannot afford to live in their own state.

    While the emotions I feel are viscerally unpleasant what is even more unpleasant is my understanding of how decades of Vermont state government’s anti business and high taxation have made it possible for this gentrification to occur.

    One aspect of this crisis has been the state’s actions in completely discouraging property owners from engaging in long term rentals. If you speak to landlords you will hear the stories of tenants who put up a first, last and a security deposit, move into the rental unit, destroy the rental unit and pay no rent again, ever. Often the landlord cannot get the tenant evicted and has to pay them off to get them out of the house or apartment. This is not to say the Vermont does not have it’s share of bad landlords. I have heard that side of the story also and in cases it is valid.

    It is not any wonder to me that property owners would look at doing short term rentals to avoid nightmare long term rental situations. It is simply the easier path.

    If there are any good solutions to this problem, without creating worse unintended consequences, they will originate at the most local level of government and not the state.

  5. Lee Herrington says:

    Excellent article telling many facets of the issue. Thank you for putting in the research in this important issue.

    Great STR out of town guest story I heard recently. Some folks who have outdoor tents set up as STR in a nearby town told a great story in the same theme as folks who don’t know how to tend a fireplace. The owner stocks every tent with bear spray just in case. The next morning folks from NY who spent the night told of giving themselves coughing fits after spraying the bear spray all around the outside of their tent to keep the bears away during the night. I can hear the conversation now “Honey. Make sure you spray for the bears. It’s getting dark out.”