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Short-term rentals are a hot topic

Many short-term rental owners in Saranac Lake are angry about rules the village board is considering, and they gave village officials an earful at a public input session and at recent board meetings. They say STRs don’t hurt anyone — rather, that they boost the local economy by welcoming more visitors to town. They say these rules would be unnecessary and overburdensome to homeowners just trying to make a little extra income. They say the village’s planned data collection would be intrusive. And they suspect this would just be a foot in the door for stricter rules in the future.

Other village residents are urging the board to pass regulations, saying there is a housing shortage partly because too many long-term housing options have been converted into STRs. They also say it hurts the quiet character of neighborhoods to fill them with vacationers.

It’s not just Saranac Lake. Lake Placid has already enacted STR rules that are in many ways stricter and more complex than what Saranac Lake is proposing. The Wilmington Town Council is also working on some STR rules.

We understand both sides of this debate.

We know several property owners who converted long-term rentals to short-term, partly to make more money but also sometimes because long-term tenants had trashed the places. We can sympathize with these owners. Good tenants are lovely, but bad ones make a property owner want to get out of the game and cater to customers with less time to do damage. Residents party just like vacationers do.

We have also seen that STR conversion upgrades the local housing stock — something is badly needed around here — because owners can better afford to fix places up, and are driven to do so by user reviews on the internet.

On the other hand, we also know several tenants who had to leave apartments because of such conversions. We sympathize with them, too, and we know the growth of STRs has diminished the number of long-term housing units. The big question is, by how much? A sustainable amount, or something like in Lake Placid, where affordable apartments for local workers used to be plentiful but are now scarce?

In Lake Placid, the STR boom has put apartments in seriously short supply — and high priced — for the many people needed to work at its restaurants, hotels, shops and other businesses. These businesses struggle to find and keep staff. Commuting from other towns is hard for many workers, not worth it for many others. STRs have taken a toll on Lake Placid economy, unquestionably.

In our view, some of the strongest questions STR owners raise about Saranac Lake’s proposed regulations have to do with enforcement and a comparison with long-term rentals:

¯ Who will enforce these rules? Police? Code enforcement officers? Would the village have to hire more staff to do so?

¯ Is the village inspecting long-term rental units regularly, like it is supposed to? (That was a big issue a few years ago.) If not, shouldn’t it do that first before adding STR duties?

¯ Would vacation renters not be allowed to do things long-term residents are allowed to do, like have parties?

Village leaders should address these things before they move any rules forward.

The problem is not any individual STR; it’s when a community gets too many of them. How many is too many? Do you set restrictions before or after you reach that threshold? Those are the critical questions.

In that light, maybe a municipality should skip the complicated rules and focus on capping the number of STRs allowed — but that would be controversial as well. It would be hard to set fair rules about who is in and who is out.

There are no easy answers here, but it is important to deal with this issue, keeping fairness in mind.

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