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A new invitation to investors

Turning residential neighborhoods into commercial zones

Olympia’s planners have a new proposal that promises to worsen the city’s housing shortage and escalate costs beyond existing levels. Their new initiative focuses on “short term rentals,” (STRs), where a room or a house is rented for stays of less than 30 days. Airbnb is a familiar example.

The planners are recommending that a property owner be allowed to convert up to three entire residences to be offered as short-term “vacation rentals.” These could be single-family homes, duplexes, or triplexes, or condos. They would be allowed in every residential neighborhood in the city.

The housing market in Olympia is notoriously tight. The possibility of adding just 474-946 new housing units over the next 20 years was cited last year by Community Planning Dept. Deputy Director Leonard Bauer as the reason for urgent adoption of new infill zoning rules. Under the Department’s “vacation rental” proposal, conversion of a mere 500 units would more than wipe out the alleged benefits of the “missing middle” rezone plan. In San Francisco, entire homes on Airbnb alone removed 14% of housing units that would otherwise have been available to long-term renters.

Olympia council members are said to be attracted to the proposal because a person could own three separate “vacation rentals” as a way to supply income that might be lost due to continuing effects of the pandemic. In Olympia where many working people realistically can’t afford to buy one house, it’s clear that no working person would be buying a second house (or third or fourth) house as a way to preserve income.

In an extensive inquiry into the rising phenomenon, the Sustainable Economies Law Center found that allowing “vacation rentals” promotes the following:

  • Takes long-term rental units off the market, adding to the scarcity of housing options and pushing up prices.
  • Incentivizes property owners to keep units vacant or even evict tenants in order to make higher profit per night from short term rentals
  • Adversely affects community cohesion—vacation rentals serve a revolving circuit of transient occupants (“guests”) who are neither connected to nor invested in the neighborhood.
  • Reinforces class, gender and racial inequities because online platforms make it easy for people to act on biases when selecting a guest (or a host) and because the opportunity to rent living-space to short term guests like many other economic opportunities disproportionately privileges the privileged.

The original rationale for Airbnb and similar arrangements (the “sharing economy”) was that this would allow people a means to make use of excess space and earn some extra income. The proposed regulations for Olympia do provide for this as a “homestay” where someone would offer a room or area in their primary residence to travelers for short stays.

Regulations that allow investors to purchase and rent entire housing units by the night departs entirely from the “home sharing” concept, instead promoting speculative business opportunities in neighborhoods previously free from the vagaries of commerce.

In the absence of protections for housing affordability, creating a category of “vacation rentals” promises to escalate housing costs and ultimately drive out lower-income and even middle-income residents.

Bethany Weidner lives on Olympia’s Westside and writes often for Works in Progress.

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