ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca is mulling regulations on short-term rentals as the finer points of using all of, or a portion of, a property for an Airbnb or similar service come into question. While the plans are still quite fluid, an event last week provided the most significant opportunity for review and feedback on the plans so far.
Advocates for the reforms say the regulations could help alleviate some of the housing affordability problems locally, but at a listening session Thursday, property owners voiced their opposition to increasing regulations.
City officials stationed around the room fielded questions and guided attendees through placards with information regarding the research conducted by the city so far and what policy options they are mulling.
This was the most public opportunity for feedback on the city’s plan so far. Dozens of people filled the Borg Warner room at the Tompkins County Public Library, most of whom are short-term rental hosts with concerns about the regulations’ impact on their annual income from their property.
Several guests had pointed questions for Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, Senior Planner Megan Wilson and Director of Economic Development Tom Knipe, who have all been involved in the draft regulation process. The city will accept feedback until Nov. 27, and Wilson mentioned at the meeting that another Q&A session could be held in the future to maximize feedback.
Ithaca’s high cost of living is one of the most common reasons property owners cite for converting their rental properties to an Airbnb or other short-term rental platform. With taxes mounting and housing costs high overall, people in need of additional income to remain in their homes have turned to services like Airbnb so they can use their homes to make more money. Several people told similar stories Thursday.
The Fall Creek neighborhood is home to the largest share of Ithaca’s 458 total short-term rentals at 15%. A small section on the western end of the downtown neighborhood was another hotspot, with 13.7%. The West End was home to about 10% of the city’s Airbnb properties. There are virtually none in the Collegetown area.
Other data shows that of the 2,400 single-family homes in the city, 150, or a little over 6%, are being used as a short-term rental “most of the time.”
The policy is still firmly in the formulation and feedback stage, and there isn’t an actual formal draft to review. But city officials did unveil a potential tiered permitting system which would require property owners to apply for one of three different classes of permits. The policy distinguishes between people renting out space in their primary residences, those only wishing to rent their properties during the summer tourist season, and those only wishing to rent out their space on a very occasional basis, capped at 14 days per year.
The occasional permits are aimed at people who rent out their homes for particularly crowded tourism weekends, like Cornell graduation or move-in weekend, which can be quite lucrative.
Those looking to rent out their primary residence, defined as the place they live at least 185 days of the year, would face the most regulations, though there are three different types of permits under the primary residence category.
City of Ithaca Planner Maura Baldiga said the city had arrived at those numbers after speaking to officials from other cities that have grappled with short-term rental legislation, including Burlington, Vermont.
Anita Graf, who said she owns 18 long-term rental properties with some short-term rental options mixed in, called the regulations “not reasonable.” Graf feels the oversight conducted by the companies themselves, like Airbnb, is sufficient and additional oversight by the city would unnecessarily complicate the process for property owners.
Many attendees said they were concerned about the economic impact of adding additional regulations on short-term rental units. Knipe said the city has not attempted to determine specifically what the current economic impact of STRs is locally, but that whatever the current impact is it would change somehow under the new regulations.
“We can acknowledge that short-term rentals activity does have a positive economic impact on our community, and these changes and regulations will certainly have impacts on where people are staying,” Knipe said.
Knipe went on to say that any current impact on the current housing market is multifaceted and would be difficult to gauge, but that “heavy [short-term rental] use usually negatively impacts housing costs.” It is unclear if short-term rental prevalence in Ithaca has reached that point, though.
Most comments voiced frustration at the regulations, arguing that larger housing market issues should be addressed before the city sets its sights on short-term rental units.
“I actually had to leave my home because I have $20,000 in taxes, a 50% increase over two years,” said one man, who identified himself only as “Allen.” “We have moved further away […] $20,000 a year for us to live in a three-bedroom home is really insanity. So what are we doing to focus on that instead of collecting more from people who are small potatoes, renting out their place to live without having to move?”