Vacation rentals effects on affordable housing

Anne Marie Shanks of Orcas can see the effect vacation rentals have on affordable housing.

“The county data shows a decline in long-term rentals,” said Shanks at the first public hearing on changes to vacation rental permits on April 21. “I’ve seen this in the neighborhood I live in, homes that were previously held by teachers, firefighters, electricians are vacation rentals.”

According to Community Development Director Erika Shook, 43 percent of the households in the county are vacant and 7 percent of those are vacation rentals.

“In terms of the bigger picture, we weren’t looking at this vacation rental code amendment as something that was going to solve an affordable housing issue,” said Shook at the public hearing. “It might be a small piece of the puzzle.”

This piece is outlined in the strategic action plan, created by the San Juan County Affordable Housing Workgroup and approved by county council on March 21. Regulating vacation rentals through the county code is listed under ways to “increase the affordability and availability of housing stock” in the county.

When Shanks googled vacation homes in her neighborhood of Deer Harbor, she said 58 options populated. Other islanders at the hearing gave testimonies of their neighborhoods, over half-way filled with vacation rentals, as they watch their property values and the character of their neighborhoods lower.

Some attested that unpermitted vacation rental owners don’t pay the state lodging tax, which is partially returned to the county. Others explained that vacation rentals should maintain safe lodging standards, the way hotels and bed and breakfasts are managed by the county.

When property switches hands, said Shanks, the vacation rental permit often comes with it. This leaves county officials in the dark about the new owner, with no way to enforce current code. She suggested the permits shouldn’t transfer in property sales. This could open more long-term rentals.

“The agreement is with the person, not the property,” said Shanks, who demanded more regulation than the proposed code changes.