Op-ed: So why is the Scott administration encouraging short-term rentals?

Screenshot from VT Short-Term Rental Conference recently held in Burlington.By John Walters
©2023 Vermont Political Observer

Lately there’s been a big jump in the number of housing units being used as short-term rentals. You know, VRBO, AirBnB, those fine folks.

According to a story co-produced by Vermont Public and VTDigger, “the number of homes listed on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO has grown rapidly over the last several years, following a brief pandemic downturn.”

September, in fact, saw an all-time high in units listed on short-term rental sites: 11,747, which is a 16% increase over September 2022.

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Short-term rentals are not the sole cause of our dire housing shortage. If we totally eliminated the industry, we’d still have a housing crisis on our hands.

But it sure doesn’t help. And at a time when the Scott administration has committed itself to addressing the issue, why in holy Hell did they use public dollars to help underwrite a short-term rental conference this past weekend?

The event was organized by the Vermont Short-Term Rental Alliance, an industry association that, among other things, lobbies state government on related issues. And right there in the sponsor list is the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.

As a matter of fact, Tourism and Marketing Commissioner Heather Pelham gave a speech to the assembled. Other events on the schedule included a Friday mixer where property owners got the chance to “Learn to advocate like a pro” with “experts” from, among others, Montpelier’s leading black-hat lobbying firm MMR; a talk on Statehouse advocacy from Margaret Sullivan of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce; and two talks on how to address “community concerns” about the industry.

Great. The administration is underwriting efforts to shape public policy in the interest of an industry that’s exacerbating our housing crisis. And that is, apparently, growing at a rapid clip.

It’s quite possible that Tourism and Marketing made this decision on its own, without consulting Scott’s office. That kind of siloing is a big problem across state government. But it’s also possible that the administration cares more about cosseting a profitable industry than providing more housing for actual residents.

Regulating the industry is a red-hot issue in communities across Vermont right now. There’s a bill before the Legislature to establish a state registry for short-term rentals, which would certainly help us track the industry’s growth and its impact on housing supply in different areas of the state. The bill was introduced and referred to committee last March and didn’t budge; it will get a second chance in the 2024 session. The list of co-sponsors includes representatives from numerous tourism-heavy communities, including Woodstock, Manchester, Burlington and Londonderry. (State Rep. Kelly Pajala has been pushing this bill for a couple of years. )

According to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, about 3.6% of Vermont’s housing units are being used as short-term rentals. That’s not a huge number, but again, it sure doesn’t help.

I wouldn’t expect a pro-business Scott administration to crack down on the industry. But in the middle of a housing crisis, should they really be spending tax dollars to promote it?

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  1. The short term rentals are not evenly distributed throughout the state. They are more concentrated in otherwise more desirable neighborhoods. Making those neighborhoods less desirable than they were. There was a time when I knew every car on my dead end road. These days, there are more strangers than actual residents. The neighborhood has become a non contiguous motel with absentee management, providing no on site supervision.
    Maybe we shouldn’t fight it. Sell out to the real estate speculators, and move to backwater Pennsylvania for peace and quiet.