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Stop vilifying vacation rentals | Guest column

Submitted by Jan Scilipoti

Hosting on the Rock

I came to be a vacation rental host through being a vacation rental guest. Since 2013 my partner and I have stayed in short term rentals ( through Airbnb and VRBO) all around the world. We greatly prefer them to hotels.

The current moratorium took me by surprise. Partly, because we were in the midst of a Pandemic and I’d already lost three months of reservations. But mainly because I hadn’t heard the rhetoric and false narratives being circulated about vacation rentals (VRs).

The question of the moment is: Should the complete cessation of new permits continue?

I say no. Here’s why.

It’s Orcas-centric.

Sorry, Orcas. You have the lion’s share of VRs in the county and you’re feeling it. The VRWG (anti-Vacation Rental Working Group) is on Orcas, and their ‘open’ meetings presented a biased view that did not allow alternate viewpoints. A resolution requesting a moratorium was from Orcas, most of the pro-moratorium respondents giving public comment are from Orcas, and the petition requesting a moratorium was – you guessed it — from Orcas. Although it turns out that 2,400 of the 3,000 signatures are questionable, as it is unclear whether they are San Juan County residents or not.

I urge the council not to restrict the entire county because of areas of vacation rental concentration on Orcas. Let’s address those two areas, Eastsound and Deer Harbor.

The Moratorium demonizes vacation rentals for what is a larger tourism-based set of issues.

The numbers are shocking. A 2015 Housing Study shows that of all the houses in the county, 7% are vacation rentals, 16% are long term rentals, and 36% are vacant. The rest are owner-occupied.

When we dig into the 7% figure and remove the inactive and non-compliant permits, we have closer to 3% rentals that are active. We do not need a moratorium to bring a dead stop to permits that account for 3% of our houses. What we need, in my opinion, are incentives to turn some of those vacant homes into long term rentals.

I’ve tried out this theory on a few friends (who actually live here). “Oh, no.” they say with certainty, “Nobody wants to do that. Then they can’t use their houses.”

And there is the crux of it. No matter how much we limit vacation rentals, it doesn’t mean that rentals – whether ‘affordable’ or not – will increase. The San Juans are a desirable vacation destination, and people want to use their houses.

Which brings me to what could be the most often repeated fallacy I hear.

Myth: Vacation Rentals raise the cost of housing.

Maybe. We owners take excellent care of our properties. But these factors are also true:

The Pandemic and working remotely have raised local housing costs.

Market forces in Seattle and surrounding areas have raised local housing costs.

Being a vacation destination where people want to retire has raised local housing costs.

Let’s revoke this heavy-handed Moratorium and get back to Pandemic recovery. We can work together regarding specific issues through the normal process, while allowing the new 2018 restrictions to take effect. It’s time to stop vilifying vacation rentals.