It happens in teeny-tiny towns

By Carol Walker

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I chuckled to myself when I read the statement in an online article, “In the teeny-tiny village of Joshua Tree, California, population 7,000, there are more than 200 vacation rentals on Airbnb.” I would say Hill City would be more appropriately classified as teeny-tiny, nevertheless, like Joshua Tree, I believe we have a similar issue to consider when it comes to vacation rentals. It is an issue being considered by towns and cities across the United States, no matter the size.

During the presentation of the Comprehensive Housing Study at a recent P&Z meeting, I believe I heard an audience member say we have roughly 50 vacation rentals in Hill City. If that is true, I would say our percentage is higher than “teeny-tiny” Joshua Tree. Is it an issue that should be addressed or do we allow the market to handle it?

The recommendation within the housing study is to study the impact of vacation rentals and create an inventory of the true number and location of vacation homes which could be used to develop guidelines for vacation properties if it is thought to be necessary.

Regarding Joshua Tree, the writer of the article contended that adding vacation rentals to the hotel and camping options, “made it too easy for the tourism economy to grow to scales that small towns can’t support.” In addition, the local homebuyers’ market has almost dried up because homes are becoming short term rental sites, making it hard to find long term rental units.

Mark Lundquist, the county representative that oversees Joshua Tree, said the tourism dollars that come in from vacation rentals provides a boost to the local economy, “but there is a break-even point. It’s causing us infrastructure shortfalls and it’s costing us a lot of money. It comes to a point where tourism becomes a loser.”

Airbnb, the largest vacation rental platform in most places, was asked if it might consider limiting the number of rentals in small towns overburdened by tourism. Their reply was, “Airbnb fights economic inequality and brings real economic benefits to people and communities, and we’re proud to help people in cities large and small pay the bills and stay in their homes. We’ve also worked closely with local leaders and we’re committed to helping cities solve their housing challenges.”

If that is true, then it is worth a try to contact them and find out what suggestions they might have for solving our local issue of providing affordable housing. However, in the end, I would guess the primary solutions will have to come from the local community.

Hill City government does not have the resources to provide housing. Entrepreneurs look at the bottom line and see that they can get so much more for  renting by the day or by the week than they can for a monthly rental. You can’t blame them for wanting to make a better profit. However, I hate to see the vacation rental market take all the potential affordable homes off the market so young families can’t find a place here. We need them for the viability of the community.

People may not consider something like a housing study to be very valuable because so many studies are placed on a shelf and never considered again. I remember City Administrator Brett McMacken saying that often a study such as this is a starting point that raises more questions and additional studies. I think that is true.

Many of the recommendations in the study for things such as additional rental units, senior housing and subsidized housing require additional study. What kind of resources are out there? What can we as a community do to preserve what we have all come to love about the Heart of the Hills?

The recommendations from the study are many, and the city will have to prioritize what to pursue first, but I hope sometime soon, the suggestion to inventory the number of vacation rentals and their impact on the local community will be given its proper due.

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