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Saranac Lake takes it slow on regulating vacation rentals

SARANAC LAKE — As Lake Placid’s housing crunch comes to a head, surrounding communities are preparing for possible spillover.

It’s no secret the Lake Placid vacation rental and housing bubble has been growing for more than a decade. The situation has been under scrutiny for the past two years as the Lake Placid Village Board of Trustees and North Elba Town Council work together to establish vacation rental regulations.

The neighboring towns of Wilmington and Keene are working on regulations. Here in Saranac Lake, village Mayor Clyde Rabideau said he and the Board of Trustees are monitoring the vacation rental situation, but he doesn’t see reason for panic.

“The situation in Lake Placid certainly does give us pause for caution, but I don’t see it to that degree here,” he said in a phone interview Monday.

Rabideau is currently a part-owner of an Airbnb rental property in the village.

He said the village checked vacation rental numbers from Airbnb, Vrbo and AirDNA, a website that analyzes vacation rental data. He said they found 66 active rentals in the village. According to AirDNA, there are 191 vacation rentals in Saranac Lake’s ZIP code and 667 in Lake Placid’s

He said the village is working on a registry system for vacation rentals, and it should be adopted by the village board in about a month or two.

“We are aware of short-term vacation rentals,” Rabideau said. “We want to make sure they are an enhancement and not a detriment to the village.”

Village Community Development Director Jamie Konkoski said vacation rentals are a complex subject that has pros and cons.

“We’re watching what happens in Lake Placid closely to see how the community deals with all the aspects of its short-term rentals,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Anecdotally speaking, some folks think that short-term rentals are competing with workforce housing, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re tracking them: to determine if there is a trend or if we need to approach our workforce and long-term housing differently. So far, I would not say we confirmed that.”

During Tuesday night’s village trustee debate at the Harrietstown Town Hall, Trustee Rich Shapiro said he had heard noise and parking complaints from people in the village who live near vacation rentals.

“There’s noise till 2 in the morning,” he said. “There are 10 cars parked in the street where there’s not supposed to be parking.”

Also during the debate, Shapiro and fellow Trustee Tom Catillaz echoed Rabideau and Konkoski’s message that there isn’t a fully formed plan yet on how best to approach vacation rentals.

“I don’t know what to do about it, but I know we’re going to watch what other people are doing and form our own plan,” Catillaz said.

“It’s easier to let them go through a lot of the learning experience, figure out what may or may not work there, and then we can take that and adapt it to the Saranac Lake situation, which is a little bit different,” Shapiro said.

The other candidate that night was Fred Balzac of the Green Party. When he ran for North Elba town Supervisor in 2019, he called for a moratorium on vacation rentals and said those established in residential neighborhoods should be shut down. However, he also acknowledged that the situation in Saranac Lake is different.

Village Trustee Patrick Murphy has personally felt the negative effects of vacation rentals. On two occasions he was removed from a long-term rental unit because the owner wanted to convert it into a vacation rental. However, he said he would like to gain more data before going ahead with any policy or regulation.

“I think there are some units being used in the downtown area that could be have been used as long-term apartments, but that’s also up to the property owner, and I respect that,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I don’t want to jump the gun even though I may have had some negative experiences personally.”

Murphy said he’s been trying to work with Franklin County on identifying vacation rentals in the area, but it has proved difficult.

“They have software they have a subscription to. It’s basically a bot that scrubs internet for all the different types of postings for vacation rentals,” he said. “I’ve pushed for the county to help us with this endeavor, but there are some different opinions on how much of that info should be public.”

Vacation rental sites don’t often give the exact location of a unit, Konkoski said.

“You might find some, but most are listed with a general location, and when a person completes a booking, that’s when you get the address,” she said. “We’re noting the general areas and neighborhoods.”

Most of the vacation rentals are around Lake Flower and in the downtown area, according to an AirDNA map.

Rabideau said there is potential for regulations in the future, but the village isn’t there yet.

“We don’t have the infrastructure, personnel and bureaucracy in place to enforce that kind of regulation,” he said. “We’re not anywhere close to it.”

He said he considers Saranac Lake an affordable place to live.

If you’re going by the standard that rent or homeowner payments (insurance, loans, utilities) should be 30% of your monthly income, housing in Saranac Lake can be considered affordable in some regard. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for Saranac Lake in 2018 for a year was $48,365. Median does not mean average. It’s just the middle number out of all the household incomes in the village. Thirty percent of that salary’s monthly income would be $1,209. The Census Bureau says the median rent in the village is $734, the median home payments without a mortgage are $640, and the median home payments with a mortgage are $1,427.

Sarah Clarkin is the executive director of the Harrietstown Housing Authority. She said she doesn’t see vacation rentals as a major concern just yet.

“From the housing authority perspective, to some degree it’s apples and oranges,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Families looking for vacation rentals are in a different socioeconomic standing than the housing authority participants. Those people who are coming here to vacation may have more in the way of income and are looking for apartments that are geared toward the comfort of vacation. Our year-round residents are looking for year-round needs.”

Clarkin’s group runs two programs, both of which help find housing for low-income families and individuals. The authority operates the Lake Flower and Algonquin apartments, and if Section 8 participants want to get an apartment or home on the private market, the authority will use the federal program to subsidize the costs. She said the occupancy rates at the Lake Flower and Algonquin apartments usually run between 96% and 100%; however, she said the wait list for a room at either location tends to be short.

Clarkin said there could be a potential downside to increasing vacation rentals.

“I’m just speculating here, but if the demand for vacation rentals increases, property owners might be more inclined to rent out for vacations than long-term housing,” she said. “I do think (the vacation rental market) is growing and becoming more popular. I do think the village is beginning to think about how best to approach that increase. Over time, with increasing numbers, it does have its impact.”

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