Years after its restrictions on short-term vacation rentals caused legal trouble for Bar Harbor, the town is wading back into the question of how it can balance tourists’ demand for short-term rentals with the need for affordable housing for full-time and seasonal residents.
A consultant for Bar Harbor recently found that property owners market at least a fifth of the town’s housing stock on short-term rental websites, and workers at The Jackson Laboratory and in the town’s sizable seasonal tourist sector frequently encounter a lack of affordable housing when they’re looking for places to live. Jackson Lab’s new chief operating officer recently cited a lack of affordable housing for workers as the organization’s top challenge.
This winter, Bar Harbor’s elected town council has turned its attention to vacation rentals as a way of addressing the housing shortage.
Houses that tourists rent out by the week in the summer are often left vacant for the winter, despite the island’s need for year-round housing. That’s because people who vacation on MDI — where Acadia National Park draws millions of people each year during the summer and fall — are willing to pay more per night than year-round residents, allowing property owners to make more money by renting their houses out by the week for a few months of the year than they would by renting them out by the month throughout the year.
“It’s a problem,” Gary Friedmann, chairman of the town council, said Tuesday. “You walk down my street in the winter and half the houses are dark.”
The inability of young families who work in Bar Harbor to buy or rent houses in the town does not bode well for its future, he added. If the town is going to have schools and teachers and firefighters and nurses, he said, it needs houses where children and their working parents can afford to live.
The consultant who recently looked into the issue for the town told officials that there are 571 houses in Bar Harbor listed on short-term rental websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway.com, according to Friedmann.
“We think there’s more than that,” he said. “That’s more than one-fifth of our housing stock.”
On the other side, many property owners say that renting out their properties for a few days at a time allows them to earn the income they need to pay their mortgages. Without that income, they would not be able to afford to live on MDI, where many relatively wealthy people who live out of state pay top dollar for houses where they spend the summer.
At times the town has gotten into legal disputes with local property owners over regulating vacation rentals, with mixed success.
In 2009, the town relaxed some restrictions it had implemented a few years earlier, such as limiting where in town such properties could be located and instituting life-safety standards, after some residents challenged the restrictions in court. Their challenge ran up the town’s legal expenses.
Last fall, the town took local residents Robert and Kathleen Jordan to court for renting out a garage apartment for less than 30 days when the apartment had not been approved for that use. The Jordans later agreed not to rent out the apartment again without receiving proper approval from the town’s planning board, according to a consent judgment filed in Hancock County Superior Court.
The Jordans did not respond to a voicemail message Wednesday afternoon.
Since identifying the lack of affordable house as a top priority last fall, the town has taken broader steps to get a handle on the vacation rental issue. It has conducted online surveys, and it has implemented a required annual registration fee of $250 for each vacation rental property. Previously, the town required only a one-time, $50 registration fee.
On Tuesday, members of the council discussed how they might go about a more thorough revision of the town’s vacation rental rules. Much of the discussion focused on whether there is enough time to gather feedback from the public and develop specific proposals that voters can approve or reject on Election Day in November.
One idea mentioned in passing included reducing the minimum allowable stay at a vacation rental property to less than five days, which Bar Harbor currently does not allow. According to Friedmann, several rental owners say there is little demand for five-day rentals in the “shoulder” tourism seasons of spring and fall, when many visitors to MDI are just looking for weekend accommodations.
Another was to limit short-term rentals to certain residential zones.
The council is seeking more public input on the topic at its upcoming March 19 meeting. It would then appoint a committee of town councilors and planning board members to draft specific proposals for the November municipal ballot.