Opinion: On short-term rentals, the town has come to a crossroads

Rental law

Two weeks ago, Abigail Field, a lawyer hired to represent a group of homeowners in Southold Town that would profit from the new “short-term rental” phenomenon, published a Guest Spot critical of Southold Town Board’s efforts to institute a 14-night minimum rental stay.

Ms. Field is concerned that new regulation would “drive … tourists and their dollars to other communities.” However, the reality is that other nearby communities such as East Hampton have already enacted far more stringent rental controls than those proposed in Southold.

In the article, she states that the Town Board received complaints of only three “problems” at the recent public hearings. She sets up the three “problems” that she would have you believe are not real.

The first is the case of the “nuisance property” “where the vacation rental landlord allows too many guests, who party late and loud.” She concedes that “everyone agrees such bad apples should be shut down” and suggests that enforcement of the current code or creation of a new permit process could eliminate these “bad apples.”

It is clear, however, that the public comments showed firstly, that even vigorous code enforcement is inadequate to the task, and, moreover, that “bad apples” are neither the sole problem, nor the crux of the problem. When homes are rented in residential neighborhoods for transient uses, with rental terms as short as a weekend or a night, it is inevitable that many of such renters are here for one purpose: they intend to party. It’s not that all of us don’t enjoy recreational activity on occasion, including those of us who live here and own homes — we have parties, graduations, weddings, barbecues — it’s just that we don’t do it every weekend. Notice that even with a one-week rental minimum there would still be a different group celebrating every weekend.

Likewise, the transient renters are not “bad apples.” Most neighbors in Southold would have no objection if a summer tenant wanted to hold a party or two over the summer. It is a normal expectation. But, when the house next door is being rented for profit every weekend, and every weekend a new partier arrives for his bash of the summer, most neighbors would feel that this activity is better confined to a commercial property that is equipped for it.

The second “problem” Ms. Field addresses is the effect of short-term rentals on the hotel industry. Local hotel owners and B&B operators have been badly hurt by the proliferation of these rentals in Southold Town. Ms. Field says this could be remedied by instituting a rental permit process and a rental permit fee. However, it is not efficient to create a huge new regulatory structure to manage short-term rentals. Tokenistic measures are not a serious solution; only a comprehensive solution could make things fair.

Finally, in Ms. Field’s third argument, she points to the public complaint that short-term rentals are “commercial businesses bringing strangers into residential neighborhoods.” She claims renting for summer weekends is no more commercial than renting for summer weeks, which no one complained about for decades.

What she does not take into account is that the situation in Southold has radically changed. We have become a destination, and with the proliferation of Internet-based rentals we now have a tsunami of rotating people renting in our residential neighborhoods.

Traditional summer rentals for a term of weeks or months were accepted for decades because residents were able to relate to summer tenants as neighbors. Local residents care whether the person next door will be around for a while, has a personal stake in the neighborhood, keeps the locale safe and clean and is considerate of the general quality of life in the neighborhood. Weekend visitors often do not share these interests.

As to the self-reported claims about the dollars spent in the local economy, there is no logical reason to believe that longer-term tenants spend any less money on local goods and services. Indeed, if they are living here, it is far more likely that they will make substantial purchases with our local merchants.

If Ms. Field were to have her way, transient rentals could abound in the Town of Southold. As more and more of our residential housing stock is bought up to be operated as short-term rental investment properties, less and less local affordable rental housing will exist. No longer will local support staff for our restaurants and shops, our marinas and our farms, be able to find rentable homes. The impacts of gentrification on the area at large have already presented our community with challenges as we try to maintain diversity and a broad distribution of economic means. In order to accommodate a balanced population, we need to preserve viable housing choices for everyone.

We are at a crossroads in the history of our town. Can we continue to enjoy the truly special quality of life here as we welcome ever more visitors and new residents? Hopefully, this is a question the Town Board will be considering as they vote to mandate a minimum 14-night stay. Fourteen nights is barely long enough to keep the “community” in our neighborhoods.

The author lives in East Marion.