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Our residentially zoned neighborhoods are for neighbors

| December 15, 2021 1:00 AM

The Sustainable Tourism Management Planning Committee has recommended a change to the definition of short-term rentals, from less than 30 days to less than 90 days, to keep our residentially zoned areas as neighborhoods with neighbors. The ordinance goes before City Council on Monday, Dec. 20. Our goal is for Council to pass these changes and ensure that traditional residential neighborhoods are not turned into tourist areas to the detriment of long-term residents. We need to maximize the availability of affordable housing options by ensuring that long-term rentals are not being turned into short-term or mid-term rentals, effectively part-time hotels.

When you can rent your home for 30 days, or even 60 days, that home is removed from the long-term rental market. This is already happening in our neighborhoods. I’m sure many of you have seen a home on your block get sold, then be occupied by the new owner a few months of the year and become a revolving door of monthly visitors or sit dark the remainder of the year. These types of investments in residential areas are gutting our neighborhoods. What will our community look like in the next five to 10 years?

Our neighborhoods should not become investment opportunities for folks who are looking to get income from their vacation home by operating a “part-time hotel”’ in a residential neighborhood. Whitefish already has designated zones that allow for that sort of thing WRR-1, WRR-2, WRB-1, WRB-3 zoning. If a buyer needs additional income to afford their part-time vacation home then they should purchase properties in those designated areas of our community. Owning a second home or vacation home is a luxury. Owning or renting a home in the community where you work should not be. If the intention of residentially zoned neighborhoods is to in fact house residents, then there is no need to allow rentals shorter than 90 days.

We have seen our community change rapidly over the past few years-visitation is at an all-time high and workforce housing at an all-time low. In the third quarter of 2021, there were 567 short-term vacation rental listings (this includes 30-day rentals) in Whitefish. In the first quarter, there were 408 listings. This is an almost 40% increase in the number of short-term rentals in sixth months. Imagine if those 160 homes could have gone to residents — things would look very different. Not only is the increase in short-term rentals taking beds from our workforce, but this ability to generate income from the property is also driving up purchase prices for homes. Housing prices in the Whitefish ZIP code have gone up 50.3% over the past year (the national average is a 19.2% increase). People see our community, with pristine rivers, abundant wilderness access and a lively downtown, as an investment opportunity.

If in the next year this ordinance prevents 10 homes in residentially zoned areas from selling to second homeowners who intend to rent their property on a monthly basis to generate income or subsidize their mortgage I call that a win. That’s beds for our neighbors in these residentially zoned areas. We need to maintain the local character, livability and integrity of our town for

our residents, not provide investment opportunities for second homeowners (non-residents) that in turn drive up home prices and remove workforce housing from the rental market.

The fabric of our community is changing faster than we even realize. And we need to act before we lose more of our neighborhoods to short-term rentals. If you agree this definition change will help maintain the intention of residentially zoned areas — to be neighborhoods that house teachers, health care workers, small business owners, hospitality employees, city staff, and our workforce, then I encourage you to attend the meeting on Dec. 20 and share your stories of how short-term and mid-term rentals are impacting your ability to purchase a home, find a long-term rental, adequately staff your business and live in a neighborhood with permanent resident neighbors.

Lauren Oscilowski is the chair of Sustainable Tourism Management Planning Committee and a Whitefish business owner.

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