On Jan. 21, 2020, I sat in a gymnasium in North Conway, New Hampshire, listening to resident after resident speak out against short-term vacation rentals in their town.
“This used to be such a quiet community,” said one gentleman, echoing what five before him had said. Most who spoke seemed to be in their 60s or 70s, and echoed one another’s concerns about a family town becoming a party town.
North Conway and its surrounding communities are typically quiet during the week from Labor Day through Memorial Day. It’s nearly impossible to take a trip to the grocery store or grab a coffee at Frontside Coffee Roasters without running into five people you know, engaging in quick conversation about the ski conditions at Wildcat Mountain or the new mountain bike trails on Hurricane Mountain.
But on weekends, that seems to change. Traffic builds on Route 16 heading into the village, and a few well-known short-term rentals around town grow a bit louder, with visitors having a few beers over a bonfire well into the evening. And with these vacationers comes the economy that allows these small mountain towns to thrive.
In recent years, tourists traveling to North Conway and similar New England towns have shifted from staying in hotels and inns to short-term rentals owned largely by out-of-towners. And with the ongoing pandemic accelerating this shift, it seems nearly impossible to close the floodgates.
“We’ve always had tourism here in the valley,” said Suzie Laskin, a Realtor who works for Keller Williams Lakes and Mountains Realty in North Conway and has lived in the Mount Washington Valley for nearly 30 years. “And a lot of people have always rented their properties out short term to help pay their mortgage, real estate taxes and condo fees. But with the popularization of the Internet, there seems to be an increase in people doing it. Not to mention, it’s more lucrative now.”
Visitors are shifting to short-term rentals for the same reason we all are — it’s preferable to have a backyard to relax and have a bonfire, a kitchen to cook in, and the overall freedom to enjoy the same luxuries that the locals do. Short-term rentals booked on platforms such as VRBO and AirBnB allow guests to avoid front desk check-ins and the lack of space that often goes hand-in-hand with hotels and inns. They provide a more “local” experience.
And in the midst of a flourishing pandemic, when spending time in public spaces and in close proximity to other people is highly discouraged, the appeal of having a personal house to rent for a weeklong ski vacation is greater now than ever before. According to a local who has spent the past 82 years living in the valley, this past summer was the busiest he’s seen.
Each December, when my third job waiting tables at Cranmore Mountain’s Zip’s Pub begins for the season, I overhear customers from Massachusetts and Rhode Island discussing what they’ll be cooking for dinner back at their AirBnB, and who is responsible for grabbing the beer. “Would these people still be here, spending the money that keeps me employed if their only lodging option was the Holiday Inn?” I wonder to myself.
I’m also guilty of feeding the short-term rental market. Friends and I have opted out of going to towns that don’t have any short-term rentals available in lieu of a nearby town that does.
Places like North Conway, Stowe and Bethel exist because of this tourism. Most locals work at ski resorts, restaurants or shops — many of which would struggle to survive without tourism. And some locals even run their own short-term rentals, making it possible for them to pay their mortgage in a place where residents need to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
“I would barely be scraping by if I didn’t vacation rent,” said Chellsey Latham, another Realtor who owns and manages two short-term and one long-term rental. “You can virtually triple your money from what you’d make renting long term.”
In an economy where the cost of living exceeds the average wage, and servers and ski resort employees are competing with second homeowners making Boston wages, such a deal is hard to pass up.
This style of rental also benefits the out-of-town homeowner, many who would be unable to afford a vacation home without the ability to rent their property during vacant weekends.
Of course, those voicing their concerns about the influx of short-term rentals aren’t without justification. While serious problems are few and far between, there have been instances of “problem rentals” hosting late-night parties.
“The house next door to me was sold to a couple from Massachusetts in 2016,” said Darlene Leavitt, who grew up in the valley and owns a small local business. “And when he first started renting this three-bedroom house, he allowed an unlimited number of people. After we complained, he lowered it to 17. It was always loud. It was awful.”
While Leavitt fought to ban, or at least create more stringent regulations on short-term rentals in her neighborhood, she does understand the importance of allowing them at least in some capacity.
Affordable long-term housing is also an issue in North Conway and mountain towns nationwide. Locals and those looking to permanently relocate to the Mount Washington Valley flood the White Mountains Housing and Rentals Facebook group, looking for annual leases they can afford on their tourism-driven paychecks. All the while, houses throughout the valley owned by out-of-towners sit empty, save for the weekends booked by short-term renters. Many of these “in search of” posts go without response.
According to a Facebook post by Peter Brandon, who spent three years in the valley before moving to Portland, Maine, to pursue a career as a software engineer and is very active in the fight to secure long-term housing, the affordable housing crisis can’t solely be blamed on short-term rentals.
“There has undoubtedly been a negative effect on the availability of affordable housing in the valley with the rise in popularity of short-term rentals,” wrote Brandon. “The crisis we have is in large part the result of toxic and archaic zoning laws and other local ordinances that have prevented the development of long-term affordable housing, yet have conveniently looked the other way for short-term rentals and those that benefit from them.”
Brandon concluded by stating the solution isn’t to slam the door on short-term rentals, but to open the door to sustainable housing solutions.
In 2010, the nonprofit Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition was formed to do just that. The Housing Coalition works with the Mount Washington Valley Economic Council and Mount Washington Valley Regional Collaborative to improve economic growth and the overall quality of life in the valley.
“The (MWV Housing Coalition) is trying to figure out what we as a community want our town to look like,” said Harrison Kanzler, the Housing Coalition’s executive director. “But also how we can make it affordable so people can live in it.”
The Housing Coalition works with local planning boards to amend zoning ordinances, support developers of affordable housing, work with state legislators to secure funding for affordable housing, and engage and inform the local community along with local and state legislators.
Despite the problems associated with short-term rentals, the likelihood of them going away — and rural tourist towns surviving and flourishing — is slim. On Nov. 11, Conway’s short-term rental committee submitted a list of proposed short-term rental guidelines to the Selectmen.
These guidelines largely addressed disturbance issues, suggesting the utilization of licensing, a 24-hour complaint hotline, a noise ordinance, among other steps to maintain a quiet setting for the neighbors.
The benefits of short-term rentals are undeniable for travelers, homeowners and local economies. And while appropriate regulations and ordinances must be in place in order for towns like North Conway to maintain their quiet, charming environment, the longevity of these rentals also depends deeply on the respect of the visitors using them.
“We’re really messing with the evolution of travel here,” said Latham. “Every year, when we vote in the USA Today Best Ski Towns list, we are inviting the entire universe. This is an outdoor mecca for so many people. This is paradise.”