Moratorium on vacation rentals not a solution | Guest Column

By Michael Linehan

Special to the Journal

Regarding illegal vacation rentals, I agree the county should enforce existing regulations. However the vast majority of legitimate vacation rentals on this island are not places that are likely to rent long term to “the county’s middle working class”.

Recent rumors/talk about a moratorium on vacation rental permits as a way to solve that shortage is misguided at best. When a waterfront house can be rented for $2,000-2,500/week (or more, depending) it does not make economic sense for that owner to rent long term for $1,200-1,500/month instead. So the potential economic value of that property as any kind of rental is just going to disappear. And the potential tax revenue along with it.

The shortage of affordable housing is real and needs to be dealt with, but eliminating the possibility for new vacation rentals is not the answer. Many people who come here looking to buy a place are interested in the possibility of vacation rental as a way to make their purchase more affordable. That’s how I could afford my house back in 2000 and I had it as a vacation rental for five years before moving here full time.

Workers are not the only folks facing a shortage. The lodging options for visitors are also extremely limited. And because of the law of supply and demand, lodging is becoming more and more expensive. I think we can agree that a significant growth in new hotel rooms is not an option.

The San Juan Island Bed and Breakfast Association is down to seven members, it was around two dozen when I moved here full time in late 2004. Vacation rentals play a large part in filling the lodging demand. But vacation rental properties are not a constant. There is turnover. What was once a vacation rental can, and does, change. Places sell, or owners move here full time and stop renting, as I did. There are many reasons a vacation rental stops being available. If the possibility of a new supply is closed, with time the number of available properties will diminish, ironically as lodging demand is increasing.

At a certain point we won’t have to worry about where the waiters live. The restaurants will be out of business because there isn’t enough lodging to accommodate their patrons. Much of the rental demand here is seasonal, just as the visitors are. When we talk about increasing the long term rental supply, most of those seasonal workers can’t sign a year lease anyway. They’re not going to be here that long. Restricting vacation rentals is going to have no effect on that situation.

As I creep towards retirement, I have been looking at the possibility of occasionally putting my house on Westcott Bay back into the vacation rental market as a way to augment an eventual fixed income and maybe a way to afford to travel while it’s rented. And I don’t think I’m the only property owner with that thought.

Affordable rental housing is absolutely an important issue. Seasonal rental housing is too, but a different one. We should work towards solutions for both.

But putting a moratorium on vacation rental permits is not going to solve either of these issues, and it is going to unfairly punish property owners who have a right to responsibly and legally use their property for their own benefit, and the benefit of the local economy. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face.

In closing let me say I am a pretty liberal Democrat, so none of these opinions are coming from some nutty “property rights” position.

– Editor’s Note: Michael Linehan is a real estate agent on San Juan Island