Whitefish targets increased application of vacation rentals
Whitefish City Council is calling for more focus on enforcing its current vacation rental regulations, while calling for a review of regulatory changes that could help this effort.
With an increase in tourism and new residents to Whitefish, the city’s sustainable tourism management plan committee recently implored the city to address concerns about short-term rentals. A major concern is that short-term rentals are reducing available housing in the city, exacerbating the shortage of affordable housing for the workforce.
Several ideas were presented to council at a recent working session to address short-term leasing. Council members seemed generally supportive of several ideas, including changing the definition of short-term rentals to be less than 90 days, requiring city license numbers on advertising short-term rentals , hiring an outside company for the application, increasing short-term rental fees, and exploring a bylaw that would prohibit a landlord from operating a short-term rental if they violate city regulations after a number of infractions.
Council member Ben Davis said he didn’t think law enforcement would actually solve Whitefish’s problems.
âWhat keeps coming up in my mind is excessive visitation. There are twice as many beds in short term rentals than just a few years ago, and of course that is going to make a difference. There are so many people here that it is straining our businesses, it straining our infrastructure, it straining our roads.
Council member Steve Qunell stressed that locations where short-term rentals are permitted in Whitefish would not necessarily be suitable for long-term housing rental anyway.
âHave short-term rentals affected our long-term homes,â Qunell asked. âIt has affected our livability, that’s clear.
THERE ARE approximately 260 short-term rentals permitted within the City of Whitefish limits. There are approximately 3,800 housing units in total in the city and of that total, 726 would be eligible for short-term rentals based on zoning.
Council member Andy Feury said better enforcement of city bylaws is the right first step.
âThere is a perception that short term rentals are an endemic problem that is killing our housing stock, but yet we don’t have a good app so we don’t know if it’s true,â he said. .
The city code defines short-term rentals as accommodation for visitors under 30 days and such rentals are only permitted in certain zoning districts of the city – the WB-3 general business districts, the resorts and resort business districts. These rentals are also required to register with the city and obtain a business license.
City attorney Angela Jacobs warned that because Whitefish has already placed restrictions on short-term rentals for the location, these units likely wouldn’t be used for long-term housing anyway.
âThese are areas where you are not likely to get affordable housing,â Jacobs said. âOne thing Whitefish has done very well is to regulate short term rentals in certain areas. “
LAUREN OSCILOWSKI, chairman of the sustainable tourism management plan committee, said the committee had identified short-term rentals as a priority for increased regulation.
âWe understand that there are many factors contributing to affordable housing issues in Whitefish and that short-term rentals are a piece of the pie that has significant implications,â she told council. âThis is also an area where the committee can help make a difference in this community.
Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, said it was important to set a benchmark for what is an acceptable number of short-term rentals in the city in terms of community livability.
Boyle noted that there are 1,271 short-term rentals in the 59937 zip code, which includes the city limits and just outside of the city. These rentals translate to around 2,900 rooms, he noted, more than double the number of traditional accommodation rooms in the region.
The board said it would ultimately like to focus more on enforcement, making sure short-term rentals comply with regulations.
This includes in particular ensuring that rentals operate in areas where they are permitted. The city is working on posting a map of registered short-term rentals on its website to help determine which rentals are operating illegally.
City staff are also considering increasing the short-term rental registration fee to cover the city’s costs related to law enforcement, staff and software.
While there has been talk of capping or limiting the number of short-term rentals, Planning Director Dave Taylor has advised against this option.
Taylor said doing so in areas where short-term rentals are a legal use raises concerns, as there are several licensed projects in the city that are yet to be built and cannot register their units while they are are not completed.
âThere are buildings that sell units based on the ability to do short-term rentals and you can’t take them out once they’ve been approved,â he said.
“With rumors circulating that there could be a cap, it is also possible that long-term tenants will be evicted as landlords convert units into short-term housing now, for fear of losing that in the future. Taylor added.