Last night we had another spirited hearing. It was regarding short-term rentals or as some people call them “transient-homes,” which sounds like some sort of flop house for vagrants. Those who support the short-term rentals call them “vacation homes,” which certainly lends itself to more tranquil imagery. Whether you hate them or love them, what we are talking about are homes rented on a short-term basis as an alternative to a hotel.
Short-term rentals (Airbnb) are part of what is often referred to as the “sharing economy.” That’s a term used to describe new forms of business such as car rental (Uber) and crowdfunding (Kickstarter). These new forms of business are big money. PwC estimates that the sharing economy is worth about 15 billion dollars today, but by 2025 it will be worth nearly 400 billion. But it's not all good news.
As with any change or new idea, there has been some growing pains for the sharing economy, e.g., licensed taxi drivers suing ride share companies Some cities have largely embraced short-term rentals (like Amsterdam and Paris), others have rejected them in whole or in part (like Barcelona and San Francisco). In fact, almost everywhere where the sharing economy has sprouted up, there has been some level of legal dispute.
Grand Island has also experienced its share of disputes
Let me give you a high-level description of what happened on Grand Island. Some people jumped on the sharing economy bandwagon early and invested in properties they wanted to turn into short term rentals. Later (in some cases, years later), the town asked these property owners to shut down. The property owners sued the town, and they actually won in State Supreme Court (despite applicable zoning arguments). After the Town lost, however, the then existing board changed the law. Under that new law, all short-term rentals are required to close in September.
When I came into office I inherited this complex situation. I met with both the owners of the short-term rentals and the many of those who felt that the short-term rentals negatively affected their safety and tranquility of life. Some of the short-term rental owners threatened me. They said, “That new law is illegal, and we are going to sue. We won once, and we will win again!” The anti-short-term rental side similarly threatened me saying, “If you allow short-term rentals I’m going to ruin you McMurray! You’ll never get another vote in this town!”
So I was faced with a dilemma. Should I let the law stay as is and ban short term rentals outright without regard to the potential for an additional round of lawsuits? And should I ignore the positive economic impact of short term rentals (remember the growth of the sharing economy) because of the reported negative impact on several communities where they exist? After all, if you live in a residential neighborhood, do you really want your neighbors to be out roasting hotdogs on a bonfire every night like it’s the Fourth of July?
My goal was to test it out, and weed them out
I believe that when you have a question, you can often find an answer by creating a test. My “test” idea was to recommend to the board a draft whereby existing short-term rentals (no new rentals) could apply for a permit, subject to strict operational guidelines, such as presence of the owner upon turnover of the key, noise requirements, and a public database of renters/owners, etc.
That draft amendment also created a registration fee (which I proposed to set as high as 1,000 dollars or more) whereby we could have the resources to identify (test) short-term rentals and weed out bad actors. Having benchmarked other towns faced with similar challenges (including speaking to officials in New Orleans and elsewhere), I felt this might be a way to understand the issue, control it, and avoid the potential rise of underground rentals. After all, we all know banning something does not always stop it. It usually just leads to more pernicious varieties of the same types of behavior. Frankly, I also hoped it would be a way to avoid more lawsuits.
Grand Island, I hear you
But that’s why we have public hearings. I heard loud and clear last night from those in attendance (and from many who have contacted me in other ways) that we don’t need a test. The answer is clear: short-term rentals are not for us! I felt the emotion. I felt the pain. And I heard the outrage. “Let them sue!” some said. “We’ll deal with it!”
Am I disappointed? Yes. Because I don’t think this is over. Don’t get me wrong, I hope it is. But I think that’s unlikely. Maybe if we had standards early on this would have all been different. But I have to deal with the facts as I inherited them, not as I wish them to be. Because of the input I have received, I have recommended that we pull back the amendment and reconsider.
Different is not dangerous
Before I move on, I need to address this point. There was some talk of foreigners visiting the island last night. And someone got up and stated very eloquently that “different is not dangerous.” I felt so moved by this.
The vast majority of those who oppose short-term rentals do so for very legitimate reasons. I have met with many of them, and by and large they just want to get some sleep. But I am concerned about a tinge of negative sentiment. Not just in this discussion, but others. The words persist, “riff raff,” or even the calling out of particular nationalities. And even if there is not intent, sometimes toss-aside comments can have a polarizing impact on those affected.
A story as old as America itself
Not very long ago, a man who had ambitions to become President of the United States wrote a book, declaring that the security of our country was being threatened by a mass influx of outsiders. They were “multitudes of men of the lowest classes,” the man explained. They possessed “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” Moreover, he argued that our enemies were using the United States as a dumping ground for their criminals, their handicapped, and their mentally ill he argued. If we didn’t take steps to stop this flow of undesirables, and find a way to deport the ones who were already here, America was doomed.
These words were written by Woodrow Wilson, who became 28th President of the United States. They were written about immigrants from “the south of Italy and men of the sort out of Hungary and Poland.” In other words, they were written about our ancestors.
At different times discrimination was pointed at different people. At Ellis Island, director William Williams created a set of standards to determine who should be allowed entrance to the United States, and who should be forced to take the long voyage back to Europe. Williams was a believer in eugenics, the now-discredited pseudoscience that moral, mental, and physical weakness could be pinpointed to genetic heritage. Young French women were almost always denied entrance at Ellis Island, because Williams and his top assistant, Dr. Henry Goddard, believed that young French women were genetically inclined to be prostitutes.
It got even more strange. People were denied entry based on the shape of their skull, or the length of their fingers: stubby fingers were a sign of slow-wittedness. Goddard even coined a word, to describe those he ruled unfit to become Americans. He called them “Morons,” an adaptation of the Greek word meaning, “dull.”
We must embrace the world, not hide from it
Grand Island is in many ways an idyllic place. It’s like a little snow globe of a Norman Rockwell town. And we like it that way. But America, even Rockwell’s America, has always been built on diversity and the life force and energy provided by newcomers and outsiders.
It’s scary, embracing that truth. Our natural inclination is to pull back from the unfamiliar, to distrust. But we are better than Woodrow Wilson. We know the power that comes when we open ourselves to new ideas, new people. When we are tempted to close our hearts, we need to remember the experiences of our ancestors. And even when it is uncomfortable to do so, I remain committed to moderating our debates and discussions (on short-rentals or any other matters) in a way that embraces that very American principle: different is not dangerous.
With highest regards,