Clarence Fanto: Short-term home rentals facing new rules

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LENOX — If you're among the many Berkshires homeowners who rent out their abodes to help cover property taxes and other expenses, you'll have to wait until next year to find out about anticipated new rules, regulations and taxes that might be coming down the Pike from Boston or from your local town hall.

Efforts to figure out how to tax and inspect short-term room and house rentals keep running into layers of complication on the local and state level. Some changes are required, however, as an estimated one-third of Americans annually choose an Airbnb or other online service rather than book traditional lodgings.

Hotel and B&B owners are concerned, and local town boards worry that private entrepreneurs are taking moderately-priced homes off the market for use as investment properties, worsening the already tight housing market.

The state House and Senate will try again to overcome differences in their tax-and-regulate proposals, though final action seems unlikely until the first half of next year.

The House proposal requires Airbnb hosts and others offering short-term rentals to register with the state, pay taxes based on the number of nights rented and implement health and safety standards for their properties. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, given the differences among the Berkshires, Boston and the Cape.

But there's general agreement on Beacon Hill that entrepreneur-investors should not be operating illegal hotels in residential areas. "Our neighborhoods deserve better and our housing affordability demands better oversight for this largely unregulated industry," said Tom Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance.

Airbnb is on board with taxation, limits on the number of nights a home can be rented out and the number of units that can be listed by one owner.

Whatever state lawmakers do, local communities can set up their own rules and regs.

The Cambridge City Council did just that last Monday, requiring that short-term rental hosts must live in the same or an adjacent building and limit the number of rental units, though there's no cap on the number of nights. City safety inspections of units and buildings will be required once every five years.

In Lenox, the Planning Board is researching potential solutions, reaching out to the community through a questionnaire and discussion document in development. Posted public meetings by the board's working group will resume in September.

Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber emphasizes that the group's study is not focused on residents who rent out their houses for 30 or more days at a time nor on homeowners who rent rooms during the traditional tourism season and remain in the house as hosts. Town zoning bylaws permit both scenarios.

Instead, the board is scrutinizing off-season short-term rentals, fewer than 30 days with no homeowner present, since that's not specifically covered in the bylaws.

"In addition, we expect to discuss whether Lenox wants to keep short-term rentals permitted only during the summer into early fall or whether residents want that period expanded," Kueber stated.

"We will continue to work hard, to be measured and to listen to and respect everyone's input, given that this is a complex issue," she added.

The challenges, as Kueber outlined them, involve an attempt to balance Lenox's largely tourism-based economy with the needs of local residents.

"Lenox derives much of its vitality from year-round residents, and it's likely that residents and visitors alike don't want the town to lose its unique character," she pointed out. "Gathering input from citizens throughout Lenox, our aim is to assess both the opportunities and concerns presented by short-term rentals. Then, together as a community, we can decide how they will fit into our long-term vision for our town."

Any Planning Board proposals that emerge would require approval by town meeting voters, with a two-thirds vote required.

The bottom line: This is certainly a delicate matter, but investor-speculators who are running pseudo-hotels in private homes disrupt the housing supply and should be treated on the same level playing field as our valued lodging proprietors. Any solution also must be fair to our hard-working residents and our elderly on limited incomes, struggling to stay in the homes they love.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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