Wendy Knight, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. File photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger
Vermont tourism officials hope to relax the state’s health regulations for licensed lodging properties as they respond to a rapid growth in such short-term vacation rentals over the last several years.
In its short-term rental strategy, dated Feb. 5, the state’s Department of Tourism and Marketing lays out steps that is says will level the playing field between short-term rental operators and licensed lodging properties.
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Short-term rentals make up an increasingly large share of the lodging revenue in Vermont, where tourism accounts for about 10 percent of the state’s GDP. Airbnb alone recently announced it had generated $7.8 million in tax revenue for Vermont stays in 2017 – about 2 percent of the total $180 million that was generated by the state’s rooms, meals and alcohol tax that year. Airbnb said in a prepared statement last month that about 340,000 people stayed in Vermont in 2018 through its platform.
Owners of licensed lodging establishments have complained that it is unfair for the state to regulate one type of vacation rental and not the other. The state doesn’t require licensure of short-term rentals.>
Lisa Ford, an Airbnb owner in Brattleboro. Supplied photo
The proposal, which will go through the rulemaking process and won’t undergo hearings in the Legislature, seeks to exempt inns, B&Bs and other establishments with fewer than nine guests from the extensive Health Department regulations that govern licensed lodging establishments.
The proposal meets the approval of Lisa Ford, a Brattleboro Airbnb owner who is putting on a two-day summit on short-term rentals in May with the Brattleboro Downtown Alliance. Ford said the state likely doesn’t have the capacity to inspect what she estimated to be more than 3,000 vacation homes.
“Having safety guidelines is important for all lodging establishments,” Ford said. “However, current data is not showing short-term rentals as being a safety crisis to travelers.”
But the proposal doesn’t go far enough for the owners of some larger lodging establishments, who see short-term rentals as a threat.
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“We have had a number of businesses that are not doing well or have closed,” said Lisa Sicotte, who owns the 13-room Blue Gentian Lodge in Londonderry with her husband. “I don’t say it’s 100 percent because of having too many Airbnbs in the area, but if you go onto the Airbnb site, you can find in our area 300. There used to be seven licensed lodging people and now it’s down to five.”
Wendy Knight, the tourism commissioner, said her department sees short-term online rentals as a legitimate accommodation option for visitors and part of a healthy tourism economy. Under the proposed rule change, owners of small lodging establishments will be responsible for adhering to health rules on their own.
“Our proposition is they will no longer be subject to 32 pages of health regulations,” Knight said of the small properties.
“We think proportional regulations make sense for the lodging industry as many of the smaller properties are owner-occupied, and most of the complaints about lodging establishments are not related to public health,” the proposal says.
An Airbnb listing in Warren. Photo by Airbnb
The Vermont Chamber of Commerce would like to see more regulation of the smaller rentals.
“Short-term rentals are a lodging business and need to be regulated like one for the safety of the traveling public, the Vermont host and the Vermont brand,” said Ronda Berns, the vice president of tourism at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
“The Vermont Chamber will continue to push for a registration system for all short-term rentals that includes a fee to support the same level of regulation and enforcement experienced by traditional lodging establishments,” Berns said.
Knight said the “most problematic” properties when it comes to licensing and regulation are the multiple-unit properties such as ski area condominiums. The companies or individuals that own them often rent them out individually on Airbnb or other platforms, skirting the obligation to obtain a license.
Knight has proposed a study to see how big the short-term rental market is, and to gather more information about short-term rental properties.
“We hear a lot about the multi-unit properties, but we don’t have any data,” Knight said. “The benchmark data over time will help us understand how short-term rentals are impacting licensed lodging properties and the availability of housing.”
Disclosure: Reporter Anne Wallace Allen is a co-host of an Airbnb rental.
Correction: This story initially mischaracterized the Scott administration’s proposal as relaxing regulations on short-term rental properties, rather than on licensed lodging properties. It was updated at 11:18 a.m. on Feb. 16.