ANALYSIS: The short-term rental debate: A Reason Gone Mad series (Part 4)
A little more than five years ago, in January 2017, the United Nations issued a troubling report that documented significant changes unfolding around the world from the “financialization of housing,” by which it meant the transformation of housing from a place to live to a means of investment and profit. It was being driven, the report said, by wealthy interests with enormous resources at their disposal.
“Massive amounts of global capital have been invested in housing as a commodity, as a means of accumulating wealth,” the report, which is worth quoting at length, begins, “and often as security for financial instruments that are traded and sold on global markets.” The financialization of housing “refers to the way capital investment in housing increasingly disconnects housing from its social function of providing a place to live in security and dignity … It refers to the way housing and financial markets are oblivious to people and communities and the role housing plays in their well-being,” the report says, defining an urgent and expanding problem that has, in some ways, contributed to this critical moment in the life of the southern Berkshires. [Emphasis added]
Such increased financialization became widespread in the aftermath of 2008’s housing-fueled financial collapse, when, amidst the wreckage, private-equity-backed groups, hedge funds, and other large investors swooped in to purchase an enormous number of distressed and foreclosed single-family homes and multi-family apartment buildings across the United States — which soon led to well-documented increases in rent and poor treatment of tenants.
Meanwhile, the 2008 economic collapse was itself fueled by the increased financialization of housing, with Wall Street creating complicated schemes to funnel billions of dollars into dangerous speculation and bets on mortgage debt. That those who caused such enormous suffering were then able to pivot and profit from it almost immediately is a grim tale indeed.
At the same time, reliance on a home as perhaps one’s only significant wealth-building asset has only increased over recent decades, leading to fearful reactions to new housing development or anything that homeowners believe, correctly or not, will impact property values. This is in a precarious economy now defined by shocking inequality, that pays insufficient wages, has steadily shifted burdens to workers to protect quarterly profits, and rarely offers pensions that, independent of the whims of the stock market, used to provide meaningful financial security in retirement.
Perhaps it’s not coincidental that Airbnb began its rise amidst the wreckage of the Great Recession by offering struggling homeowners — and, increasingly, real-estate investors in cities and resort destinations — a new way to leverage that asset into cash flow. And in doing so, add yet another thread in a Gordian knot that increasingly ties housing and property values to local economies and our individual finances, with broad and often undesirable impacts on our communities.
By 2010, after millions of American families lost their homes to foreclosure, a slow economic recovery was underway for workers while rocket-fueled for corporate profits. That’s also when Great Barrington began a nearly three-year-long project to create an updated master plan to identify needs and priorities that could guide the town forward.
That plan, completed in 2013 and approved by the planning and selectboards, acknowledged — nearly a decade ago — that “many people who work here have trouble finding an affordable place to live.” It said that “affordability is a critical concern. Taxes, real-estate prices, and the cost of living strain the budgets of many young families and seniors. More well-paying jobs and reasonably priced housing options are needed,” it explained.
The plan called for changes to ease the creation of multi-family housing, better coordinate those inside and outside of local government working on housing, and “develop a municipal affordable housing plan that quantifies housing needs, develops strategies to meet those needs, and works toward a production goal of affordable units.” These goals accompanied strategies on many other fronts, including protecting neighborhoods, as “residents expect and deserve quiet neighborhoods free from odor, glare, noise and other impacts of commercial activity,” the plan states.
There’s no discussion of short-term rentals (STRs) in the master plan, and there’s obviously no mention of a coming pandemic that would send people and money to this area in a mad rush. But those two factors have exacerbated a pre-existing housing crisis, sending prices skyward for homes and rentals and creating new challenges — in particular for local enterprises and the people they employ (and that I wrote about in the third part of this series).
All of this is important context for Monday’s Great Barrington annual town meeting, to be held outdoors in the parking lot of Monument Mountain Regional High School beginning at 6 p.m. While there are other matters on the warrant, the focus is on what restrictions, if any, residents believe are necessary to moderate the pace at which housing stock is being turned over to vacation and short-term rentals, putting upward pressure on housing prices and further reducing available housing inventory for those trying to live and work here full-time — regardless of income, but particularly for those with low-to-moderate incomes (ironically, some of those full-time residents now rely on income from offering rooms as STRs to afford to remain here).
The selectboard’s STR bylaw, initiated last fall by member Leigh Davis and now called Article 25, would allow resident owners to offer two bedrooms in their primary residence, or an entire accessory-dwelling unit (ADU) on the same parcel, for short-term rental with no limit on the number of days. Non-residents could offer a single property for up to 150 days per year, not including any rentals of 31 days or longer. No corporations can offer properties they own for short-term rental, except for limited-liability corporations (LLCs) whose member-owners consist only of “natural persons,” not corporations. And each STR must be registered with the town and meet health and safety requirements that can be enforced by town inspections. The selectboard would be empowered to implement the bylaw’s provisions, including assessing fines for violations of the bylaw and, in cases of repeated violations, revoking an owner’s right to offer an STR.
By comparison, the citizen petition STR bylaw, put forward by a group of real-estate agents, developers, and STR operators who drafted it with the help of selectboard member Ed Abrahams (as detailed in Part 2 of this series), proposes a less detailed registration process (“similar to the current dog license”), a ban on corporations offering STRs (but not LLCs that could include corporations as member-owners), and some health and safety requirements. It would also, because of what was likely a drafting error by its proponents, limit owners of multiple properties to offering only one STR in Great Barrington, thanks to its ban on STRs in “professionally managed units.” Those are defined in the state’s STR law as multiple properties owned by a single owner, excluding a single- or up-to-three-family multi-unit property in which the owner lives.
It also seems likely that the broadly drawn LLC provision of the citizen petition bylaw would simply allow owners of multiple properties to create a separate LLC for each property — as some property owners and many real-estate investors already do — to bypass the (accidental) limit of one STR. That’s because the citizen petition STR bylaw does not include language to prevent a person or corporation from being a member-owner of more than one STR-offering LLC (the selectboard’s bylaw specifically limits a person to offering a single STR).
Further, and perhaps most importantly, the citizen petition STR bylaw does not empower the selectboard to create any rules or regulations to implement or enforce it — a potentially fatal flaw. It doesn’t say who will create a mechanism for STR registration or to whom it should be submitted, or detail any penalties, fines, or repercussions for failing to meet its requirements. This likely means that if approved at town meeting as printed in the warrant, it would have no actual, enforceable effect.
Asked about these various issues, Claudia Laslie, a local real-estate agent and owner of Berkshire Rental Properties who helped draft and advance the citizen petition STR bylaw, told me this week only that its supporters are currently discussing what, if any, amendments they may propose at town meeting. But she said her concerns about the selectboard’s STR bylaw still include the lack of an exemption clause for owners who currently STR more than one property, the “invasiveness” of possible safety inspections by the town, and the town’s use of a company like Granicus Software — which made a presentation to the selectboard last October — to aggregate data from online platforms like Airbnb and elsewhere to use to enforce the bylaw.
Ultimately, any bylaws approved by town meeting must be sent to the Municipal Law Unit of the state attorney general’s office for review and approval. A spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey told me this week that this review is strictly to determine if a bylaw violates the state constitution or any existing state laws or court decisions. The attorney general’s office doesn’t weigh in on the policy, substance or intent of a bylaw, the spokesperson said.
In the case of the citizen petition STR bylaw, it’s not clear if a lack of any implementation authority or enforcement mechanism would alone be a reason for rejection. But it’s safe to assume that a fully legal but ineffective or unenforceable bylaw can still go on the books if it doesn’t violate existing law. The spokesperson in Healy’s office would only say that their office reviews each bylaw, based on its text, on a case-by-case basis.
That said, the Municipal Law Unit regularly provides suggestions to towns regarding bylaw language that might be clarified, offers guidance on bylaw implementation, and may recommend that town counsel advise on issues it highlights in its determination letters.
Indeed, last October the attorney general’s office invalidated part of a bylaw approved by Great Barrington’s 2021 annual town meeting. As voted by the town, the change to Section 241-1 of the bylaws requires all boards to provide Citizen Speak time immediately prior to any item to be voted by a board. As applied to the selectboard, the attorney general deemed that to be an “invalid directive” because town meeting, as the legislative branch of town government, may not direct the selectboard, or executive branch, to change how it chooses to use its time, citing several court cases.
Should Monday’s town meeting approve both STR bylaws, they would still be sent for review. If neither violates state law, the attorney general’s office would presumably sign off on both bylaws — it doesn’t have jurisdiction to disapprove a bylaw based on a conflict with another bylaw, the spokesperson told me — but would likely recommend that the town consult its town counsel on how to resolve differences between them. Any remedy would then have to be approved at a special or annual town meeting before it could take effect. The selectboard would have to decide how to proceed on regulating STRs in the interim.
Discussion about the two bylaws on Monday night will surely focus on the effectiveness and potential impacts of each proposal, and if they’ll do what proponents say they will. When I spoke about STR regulation with Jeffrey Goodman, a New Orleans-based urban-planning consultant who has worked with municipalities in the Commonwealth and elsewhere on housing issues, including STRs, he said it’s important for there to be specific goals in mind when crafting these types of bylaws.
“How do you [establish regulations] that are going to be meaningful to your town but also meaningful to any goal you want? If you don’t have that goal articulated, where do you even begin?” he said in an interview last month. (Davis told me that she had a conversation with Goodman early on, but Great Barrington did not hire him or any other consultant to advise on the STR bylaw.)
Goodman told me that he works with municipalities concerned about the connection between short-term rentals and available housing, but also with towns that say, “We want to get as many tourists here as possible.” For municipalities concerned about housing availability, he said that restricting short-term rentals to primary residences is generally most effective.
“Primary residence is what a lot of places are moving toward for a variety of reasons. One is the housing side — by definition, you’re not losing any units of housing. It really does cut the speculators out because you can only have one primary residence,” Goodman said. He also told me that it’s also much easier to enforce a primary-residence requirement as it has “built-in accountability, since someone’s primary residence is, by definition, in the neighborhood where they live. That’s why a lot of places are moving in that direction,” he said. (An earlier version of the selectboard’s bylaw excluded second-home owners from offering STRs, but that provision was dropped in January).
“Towns that have a longer history of vacation rentals or rely more on tourism to drive their economy may need to do other things,” he said. “Some will limit STRs in residential zones to primary residences, but not in mixed-use zones.” As Abrahams pointed out during selectboard discussions, he favors establishing different rules in different zones. That would require a zoning bylaw, which needs a two-thirds vote at town meeting versus the simple majority needed to approve general bylaws like those being voted on Monday.
Goodman also discounted day limits, suggesting they’re not always useful for preserving housing unless they are very low. He said they also do little to address problems with noise and other neighborhood impacts. “I haven’t seen anything that shows that making it 90 days or 120 days does anything to prevent quality-of-life issues.” He sees day limits as an “upper limit on the possible number of parties.”
“You can have 364 days of church deacons and then one UMass frat party. Which one’s going to matter?” he asked.
Opponents of STR regulation have suggested there are few, if any, calls to Great Barrington police for issues like parties or noise at short-term rentals. Though it’s probably fair to say that calls to police may not be the best metric for judging the impact of STRs on a neighborhood. There’s a wide range of things that would disturb neighbors and impact neighborhoods short of requiring the police to intervene. Laslie didn’t see it that way, telling me this week that if people in a short-term rental are “shooting off fireworks,” for example, a neighbor can complain directly to the renters, or to the STR owner, and that if the problem persists, then they can call the police.
Still, when investors consider acquiring properties to use as full-time vacation and short-term rentals, day limits certainly impact their math. (Earlier drafts of the selectboard’s STR bylaw had a tighter day limit of 90 days, but that was increased to 150 days for non-resident owners. There are no day limits for primary residents offering rooms in their primary residence or an ADU.) Davis has said the 150-day limit for properties owned by non-residents was established as a reasonable compromise after hearing public input.
While there may not be exact comparable communities, many cities and towns, particularly in resort areas, are grappling with the same housing challenges around short-term rentals. Many experiments are underway to see what works best — or at all.
In Summit County, Colorado, home to Breckenridge and other ski resorts, a housing shortage and rising prices driven by both short-term rentals and the pandemic has left only about one-quarter of people who work in the county actually living there. Meanwhile, fully one of every three homes in the county has an STR license, something that the county government and community activists are trying to control with zoning that establishes STR restrictions based on neighborhood. Local ballot questions have sought to cap the total number of STR licenses, which would be awarded each year via a lottery. Ideas to fund new workforce housing include additional taxes on second homes and offering substantial cash payments to property owners to switch from short-term to long-term rentals — something Abrahams has proposed here.
Clearly, though, policymakers see that time is short and delay can have significant costs. Last month Summit County instituted a moratorium — its second in less than a year — on any new short-term rental licenses while it tries to get a handle on things and further refine its rules on STRs. That speaks to the pace of change once investors have their eyes locked on an area, and recognition that delay can quickly mean fewer available options.
And as it has since last September, Monday’s debate here will surely include a broad discussion of housing and whether the selectboard’s proposal will help ease a crisis of both availability and affordability. Critics say that short-term rentals are largely irrelevant to the rise in housing prices and rents. And, besides, they say, limits will do nothing about the shortage of housing for workers and families, which can only be addressed with continued construction of new housing developments reserved for low- and moderate-income residents. Proponents of stricter regulation argue that STR limits are urgent and essential to slow the rise in housing costs. They say that “neighborhoods need neighbors” and that “STRs don’t make a community,” as stated in one of their informational flyers prepared in advance of town meeting.
So what will happen after Monday night? Is the STR debate a harbinger of what’s to come in town governance, with efforts to craft policies that balance community interests and financial interests doomed to rancor and division?
There’s certainly no shortage of ideas or thoughtful residents who want to tackle the challenge. Planning Board member Pedro Pachano, a local architect, sees a continuing need to improve town processes for approving new housing and otherwise streamlining the development pipeline. He also believes there needs to be stronger leadership.
“I’ve proposed to lift special-permit review on specific types of housing — housing that would meet the needs of people earning up to 150 percent of area median income,” he told me in an interview last month. “It would send a message to anyone willing to develop housing in Great Barrington.” He said that in the past, his proposal has been shot down, with other local leaders more supportive of “hyper-democratization” that gives a lot of power to those challenging special permits. “The process is set up so that a vocal minority can put a stop to [projects],” he said.
“What we’re seeing across the board is a lack of leadership,” he told me. “There’s too much deference to a large minority. From a development point of view, we’re being run by a large minority of wealthy, housed, property owners,” he said.
He has championed zoning changes to support the construction of multi-family rental housing, an important market segment that, in the case of two- and three-family homes, is in some flux that may be driven by both the STR issue and rapidly rising real-estate prices. For example, based on data from the Great Barrington Assessor’s Office, there are approximately 191 two-family homes in Great Barrington, and 40 of them are currently owned by non-residents. Fifty-three, or fully 28 percent, have changed hands in the last four years, with 17 sold in 2021 alone. (Of three-family homes, of which there are approximately 23 in Great Barrington, 10 are owned by non-residents and four were sold in 2021.)
It’s unknown how many of these recent sales have resulted in long-term tenants losing rental housing through eviction or because of substantial rent increases, properties in which some or all units have been converted to short-term rentals, or how many were renovated into single-family homes for full- or part-time residents. Some may have needed repairs or renovation then been rented at higher rents. (I hope to explore this with additional reporting in future columns.)
Aside from changes to permitting, Pachano said he believes the housing problem will truly only be solved with changes to the broader financial system and substantially expanded federal resources for housing. “Unless we have systemic change across the board at the federal level, we’re going to have this problem forever,” he said.
On that point, Abrahams agrees. “Any real solution is much bigger than Great Barrington,” he told me in an interview last month. “But there are things the town can do to help. [What we do] isn’t going to solve the problem. I don’t think it will even make a big dent but there are things we ought to be doing,” he said, such as his proposals to incentivize long-term rentals and construction of accessory-dwelling units (ADUs).
As for Davis, who has promised additional housing proposals soon, she told me that her focus is on residents who “are being priced out of this town and residents that would like to live here that cannot find long-term rentals.” In an interview last month, she said that while the selectboard’s STR bylaw alone will not solve the housing crisis, “It’s a good step. We need to act on it now rather than waiting,” she said. Davis also pointed to ways the STR debate has engaged the community in a discussion of housing issues. “This is spurring a lot of people into action, spurring a lot of creativity,” she said.
Selectboard member Garfield Reed, who has supported Davis’ efforts from the early days of the debate, summed up his feelings just before the board voted on May 23 to send the bylaw to town meeting: “This is a problem not just in Great Barrington, this is all over. This is not an affordable housing or workforce housing bylaw,” he said. He specifically called out what he sees as the narrow financial interests of those who have vigorously opposed the selectboard’s proposal. “I have not heard the people who seem to be opposed to it sound like they are interested in the whole community, but [only] interested in their own pocketbooks, and that I find disturbing,” he said.
But Laslie, who along with her Lance Vermeulen Real Estate colleague Tony Segalla has led efforts to oppose the selectboard’s bylaw and advance their alternative, told me that her passion on this issue doesn’t have to do with any personal financial interest, but on the impact on others in the community of tighter STR regulation. She has said that much of her vacation-rental business is in longer-term stays that won’t be impacted by limits on STRs. “I’m not doing this because I’m a realtor, or because I have a rental business,” she told me this week, a few days before town meeting. “If [the selectboard’s proposal] goes into effect, I’m concerned about what this means for the town.”
Laslie said that as a realtor, she’ll do well even if the selectboard’s bylaw is implemented since she’ll earn commissions from what she expects will be new inventory for sale. “I’m going to be fine no matter what happens. In fact, if it’s approved, there’s a lot more housing that’s going to come on [the market], people are going to sell their second, third rental house. I already have several clients saying, ‘If this goes through, I think we’re going to sell,’” she said.
Over the many months of debate and discussion, there have been relatively few voices heard from those struggling to find, or stay in, housing they can afford in Great Barrington. And many of those who face housing struggles don’t live here any longer and therefore won’t vote on Monday night.
As I wrote about in the previous installment of this series, the list of those waiting for the relatively few affordable-housing units in Great Barrington grows longer each month. And others have told me that they fear speaking out publicly because they rent from area landlords who might not take kindly to current or potential tenants who are on record complaining about rising local rents.
When I spoke this week to Lucas S., a 44-year-old Great Barrington native who has been living for about 18 months in transitional housing provided by Great Barrington’s Construct, his mixture of hope, frustration, and gratitude for help from the community brought home much of what months of acrimonious debate and political machinations occasionally obscured: That despite best efforts, many are being left behind.
Lucas told me that his wife passed away two-and-half years ago after a lengthy illness, with stays in hospitals and nursing homes, during a time when they had difficulty paying rent. Since then he’s struggled to find decent, affordable housing. An apartment he rented in Pittsfield was poorly maintained by the owner and was often without electricity and water, he told me, leaving him essentially homeless. He had been on Construct’s waiting list for affordable housing for many years and was able to move into temporary housing there earlier in the pandemic.
He recently received a federal voucher to pay for housing, but because of limited vacancies, high rents and bureaucratic challenges, he hasn’t yet found an apartment. “I’m kind of losing faith in Section 8,” he said, noting that it would be even more difficult without the help he gets from Construct to navigate all the requirements and moving parts. He said that the federal housing grant isn’t enough to cover rent costs here, and he said it’s even difficult in Pittsfield where there are few vacancies in his price range. He’d like to live on his own but is open to other options should it come to it, he said.
He receives Social Security benefits and is saving as much money as he can; he can only stay in Construct’s transitional housing until October and wants to be prepared. Ultimately he’d like to go back to school, he said, perhaps for something related to animal care. He also spends a lot of time drawing and making art. “It’s all about saving money, keeping my fingers crossed, saying my prayers, I’m not sure what else,” he said.
And he’d like to stay in Great Barrington near his parents and sister. “Here is where I want to be because my parents are older, and I want to spend time with them. And I have a little sister that I want to get to know who I haven’t spent much time with,” he said.
He’s not currently working, but he said, “I help a couple of people in the community, and they help me in return. This is where I want to be, but I don’t think it’s going to be affordable,” he said. “I’m going to have to make some tough decisions, at the least, but hopefully something works out.”
Like others who recently left transitional housing here, Lucas thinks he’ll end up in North County, perhaps in Adams, because of few vacancies here and lower rents there. Without a car, though, the bus from Adams to see his family here will take about two hours, he said.
As my Edge colleague Sheela Clary wrote last month, the number of local residents like Lucas, and working families struggling to afford to stay in South County, is rising steadily. (For more, see Part 3 of this series which includes an interview with Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct, and discussion of the growing wait for a limited number of affordable apartments.)
Depending on your perspective, Great Barrington may be caught in a vicious cycle where developers and investors see rapidly rising property values and rents, do the math, and take advantage of the moment to purchase and renovate properties for the lucrative STR market, or to flip them for profit in a very tight market flush with cash offers free of pesky contingencies, or, in the case of rental apartments, to charge higher rents. Which further pushes up prices. Rinse. Repeat.
If that’s the case, we’ll likely continue to see more rental housing of various types across Great Barrington’s downtown and residential neighborhoods converted by investors and developers to higher-end, higher-rent properties, further compounding the crisis for working people with low and moderate incomes. In the absence of creative, and in this case urgent, policymaking, the market will do what the market does best, regardless of the goals and desires of the community.
And when outside money sees an opportunity, local concerns can be steamrolled. Airbnb, a company with deep pockets and a history of actions aimed at local governments that attempt to regulate STRs, certainly doesn’t want to see restrictions enacted in a well-known tourist destination like the Berkshires. So it has not ignored developments here.
The Edge obtained copies of identical emails sent to selectboard members last month opposing the board’s STR bylaw and suggesting the citizen petition was preferable. They were generated by an online tool provided by Airbnb to its local hosts after it emailed them in advance of the selectboard’s May 23 vote.
The emails all have the same subject line, “Protect my ability to make ends meet,” and suggest the selectboard’s STR proposal “goes too far” and “would hurt our community greatly.” One irony is that many of the emails were sent by architects, real-estate investors, developers, and others whose names I recognized, and by any reasonable standard, few, if any, are having trouble “making ends meet” — at least in the way Airbnb’s copywriters would like voters to imagine. (Some residents certainly do need their STR income to afford to stay here.) Further, the emails all claim to be from Great Barrington voters when a few minutes of online research found that many are not residents.
In my view, one fundamental element of this moment seems straightforward — and not new: Without a clear vision of what Great Barrington wants to be, and how it will take action to balance its tourism-based and second-home economy with the needs of those trying to live and work here full-time, decisions about individual policies like regulating STRs will continue to seem ad hoc. And therefore may be more divisive than they need to be. Other ideas will also suffer from the lack of a community consensus that would bring people together around a clearly articulated, boldly stated, shared vision.
Without that, and the organizing, leadership and policymaking to advance it, the town may continue to be at the mercy of market forces — in real-estate development, in particular — rather than successfully harnessing those potentially useful forces in a balanced, sustainable way. And that will mean shops without employees, understaffed restaurants that eventually close, families who take kids out of our schools and move away, and year-round businesses that can’t be sustained only by visitors and part-time residents.
In this kind of struggle, “money never gets tired,” as the saying goes. Our economic system encourages profit-making to expand to fill all available profit-making spaces, often with innovation and shared positive outcomes but just as often with disastrous results at the expense of long-term community interests. That’s why vision and community-building is required; without them, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of so-called “collective self-interest” can find its way around the throat of a community while it simultaneously stuffs the pockets of a few.
So quibble with how Leigh Davis brought forth her STR bylaw proposal, or its circuitous path, or the evolving provisions, or the shifting (or simply unclearly stated) rationales, or the less-than-ideal dataset upon which some arguments were made, or with supporters’ failure to more actively build political and community consensus, or even with the specifics of the final proposal that lands in front of voters on Monday. But give credit where credit is due: On a timely issue where being reactive and timid will, without question, lead to a rapid disappearance of good policy options, she has provided needed leadership.
She has come up against unusually ferocious opposition that can best be understood in the context of the financial interests believed to be at stake — and not only from a selectboard member with a financial interest in the outcome, hair-splitting about the state ethics law aside, but also from those who have made an awful lot of money from skyrocketing real-estate prices in Great Barrington. And who, all things being equal, would probably like to continue to make an awful lot of money (News flash: No matter what happens on Monday, they will continue to make an awful lot of money).
So with that in mind, the opponents of STR regulation deployed some surprising tactics for a small-town debate. But they align with what those opponents must see as the stakes, and what some of them shared with me in this series: That they see STR regulation as a threat to the financial windfall to which they have become accustomed, regardless of the impact on others struggling to live and work in this region. And regardless of rationales that may try to explain that away.
Their tactics included an “anonymous” e-mail from a seemingly fictitious person that arrived at a crucial moment in the debate in late March and that suggested conflicts of interest among selectboard members that was largely based, it turned out, on a misreading of the state ethics law. But it was clearly an effort to distract and derail STR regulation.
Abrahams, typically a thoughtful, level-headed, and knowledgeable member of the selectboard (whether you agree with him or not) and active community member who contributes in myriad ways, spent months lamenting all the time that was spent on the STR proposal — even as he was largely the reason all that time was spent on it, by challenging every word, every clause, every idea, every single hint and notion for months on end. And with an intensity that observers of local politics have not seen from him on other issues.
Alternately, after he said at the January 24 selectboard meeting — moments after the elimination of a provision on second-home owners that would have blocked his fiancée, who lives with him, from renting her Housatonic property on Airbnb — “This was the biggest issue I had before. Every other objection I have, or issue I have, is just working around the edges, so I appreciate that one a lot.” Abrahams could have then joined Chair Steve Bannon and Davis and Reed to quickly complete work on a bylaw to present to voters. That would have opened space on the selectboard’s agenda to tackle other housing ideas (and other issues) for all of February, March, April and May. But he chose another path, including collaborating with a group of opponents to craft and submit a poorly drafted, largely ineffectual, and probably unenforceable alternative STR bylaw.
When I asked Abrahams last month about his unusual intensity during selectboard debates on the STR bylaw, and particularly in his exchanges with Davis, his voice immediately became, once again, unusually intense. “What bothers me, and this is perhaps a personal flaw, is a lack of logic. It just sets me off, it drives me crazy,” he told me, launching into criticism of what he said was Davis’ changing rationale for the proposal, the possible loss of lodging tax revenue, his belief that it would have no impact on the housing crisis, and insisting that his opposition has nothing to do with any potential impact on his fiancée’s Airbnb income.
In the end, though, after eight months of twists and turns and drama around how the selectboard’s STR bylaw proposal came to the warrant, it will be judged on the merits. The political machinations and proverbial sausage-making that went into crafting it no longer matter. And while many of us in South County who live outside Great Barrington are impacted by what happens there, and by the town’s choices and decisions, it’s now up to residents of Great Barrington to decide what action to take.
As Reed noted, this is not just a Great Barrington problem, but indeed, a broad, economy-wide problem. The financialization of housing has impacted communities around the world, and in many places rising numbers of STRs have already dramatically altered communities. It remains to be seen what that could mean here, with or without regulation. But as explored in this series, there’s no shortage of warning signs.
And what will happen after Great Barrington’s town meeting, regardless of the vote totals? A productive next step would be to bring together those now on record in favor of substantial investment in affordable and workforce housing, perhaps in a community conversation, and add their energy and ideas to those of the town officials, nonprofit leaders and others in the community who are eager — and already working — to make that happen.
Bill Shein writes a weekly column for The Edge.