You could say the drama started after a hopeful Airbnb host in Beacon, New York, cut down some trees.
In early 2017, a run-down home just a mile north of downtown was purchased by an LLC going by the name Fortress Enterprises. By the end of the year, rumors swirled that the home was being refurbished into a $500/night Airbnb property. The short-term rental site was hardly new to the area, but some concerned residents saw this particular property as part of a new wave of Beacon properties used solely for hosting guests without owner occupancy in place. Regulating home sharing in the city has been a struggle, with the City Council considering legislation in 2015 but failing to reach any consensus.
Then, things escalated: As part of the home’s renovation, a crew cut down several mature trees across the property—more than the three allotted by Beacon’s city code. A neighbor of the property testified about the illegal cuttings at a December City Council meeting. As a result, Beacon is now in the midst of renewed debates regarding how, exactly, to regulate home sharing in a bucolic city that’s become popular with tourists escaping downstate New York.
Thanks to the city’s ongoing effort, Beacon has also become a flashpoint for other upstate communities asking similar questions about tourism growth from Airbnb, alongside the need for regulations.
“Outside of New York City, there is no uniform set of laws or rules for short-term rentals, which allows rental platforms to operate without any statewide safety or tax framework,” says Mark Dorr, president of the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association. The association has come out in support of statewide regulations for short-term rentals.
“The city of Beacon is trying to address the issue,” says Dutchess County community development administrator Anne Saylor, who adds that Beacon is the first of Dutchess County’s 30 communities to reach out to the county for support in short-term rental regulation. “Other communities are watching.”
According to an Airbnb spokesperson, as of January 1, Dutchess County is home to 530 active hosts who have welcomed a total of 35,900 guests. In nearby Ulster County, part of the Catskill region, there are 1,600 active hosts who’ve welcomed 115,100 guests. A 2016 study completed for Airbnb by HR&A showed that the site’s activity outside New York City has increased 270 percent since 2014.
There are major differences between Airbnb upstate and Airbnb downstate, where the New York City Council is trying to pass its own regulatory bill. For one, upstaters don’t have to worry about the Multiple Dwelling Law, which in New York City restricts renting out a Class A multiple dwelling—so, your typical apartment—for fewer than 30 days without the full-time resident present.
And unlike in NYC, Airbnb has reached an agreement with 21 counties around New York state on an occupancy tax collection. (That includes Dutchess County, where Beacon is located, but not Ulster County.) According to an Airbnb spokesperson, the company has collected and remitted over $1.7 million in hotel and motel room taxes since reaching the first agreement with Tompkins County, which includes the city of Ithaca, in July 2016.
But beyond tax agreements, confusion looms, particularly in Beacon. This spring, the Beacon City Council introduced legislation attempting to legalize short-term rentals with new regulations in place, from owner occupancy rules to ones around fire safety and inspections. But at the end of May, the City Council ultimately voted against its own legislation.
The vote came with a confusing declaration by Beacon Mayor Randy Casale: “The law does not pass. What that means is that all short-term rentals are illegal in the City of Beacon.” His thinking: If the City Council couldn’t pass regulatory measures, short-term rentals were illegal because there were no laws to protect them in the first place.
Members of the crowd assembled for the meeting where Casale made that declaration—including many Airbnb hosts—were shocked, according to the site A Little Beacon Blog: “The resulting silence was stupefying. It lasted for 24 seconds.”
“It was a huge surprise… there is so much confusion going on, as a result,” says one Beacon host, who asked to remain anonymous. Tourism from Airbnb has become “the backbone of Beacon’s economy,” according to this host, who has continued to list his property on the site, despite Mayor Casale’s declaration. “There’s nowhere to stay,” he explains. “There are vanishingly few hotel rooms, and those cost between $300 and $500 a night.” (There are only two hotels directly in Beacon, the Roundhouse and the the Inn and Spa at Beacon, where rooms surpass $200/night.)
“The smaller cities and towns of New York shouldn’t be the pioneers trying to figure out how short-term rentals fit into larger fire-code issues and the fabric of state law,” the host says. “The state should be doing that.”
But much like in New York City, the explosion of Airbnb has earned the ire of hotel and bed and breakfast owners, who feel Airbnb hosts should follow the same regulations—from fire codes to disability accessibility—they have to. “We have to be inspected by the health department, fire department, building inspector,” says John Finneran, owner of the Caldwell House Bed & Breakfast in Salisbury Mills, in Orange County. He is also chair of the Professional Association of Innkeepers and of the New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association’s B&B Council.
On top of regulation, there’s another challenge in enforcement. “There are big challenges in enforcing any compliance, because Airbnb makes it difficult [to see] where each property is [located],” Finneran notes. He believes Airbnb hosts, like bed and breakfast owners, should have to register their address with the state.
Currently, the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association is seeking statewide legislation to create minimum safety standards for short-term rentals (such as requiring hosts to provide emergency numbers, an evacuation plan, and a working fire extinguisher), a mandated collection of sales and occupancy tax, and a registration system that would clarify how many short-term rentals there are statewide, and where they’re located.
“We recognize that short-term rentals are likely here to stay in Upstate New York, but believe that they should be on a level playing field with the rest of the lodging industry Upstate, where the lodging, housing, and business climates are different from New York City,” Dorr, the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association president, said in a statement.
He later added this push for legislation is “very early.” The association, he notes, is “still in the process of educating elected officials on the need for real reform on this.”
In Ulster County, there have been attempts to garner feedback from all 20 of its towns, its three villages, and the City of Kingston. In 2015, according to Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, “we had a roundtable discussion with Airbnb hosts and more traditional lodging owners to see how best we could make it all work.”
Though he experienced pushback initially, he says that “both parties found ways to work together for the tourism industry and increase the number of heads on beds.” Auerbach also heeded some of the concerns of traditional operators in crafting the original version of a 21st-century “bed tax,” which would set up a taxing mechanism that’s emerged in other counties. The legislation has taken slightly different forms since then and is currently stalled.
In counties whose roots are in the hospitality industry, conversations surrounding Airbnb seem less heated. “We’ve been a vacation destination in both seasons for generations,” says Robert Stanley, the town supervisor for Shandaken, in the Catskills. “There’s nothing where we’re screaming and yelling about Airbnb; we recognize it brings quite a few people into our neighborhoods who spend money here.”
Still, he says, Airbnb has brought up unique challenges, like noise complaints and complaints of guests leaving out trash, which then attracts bears. Local government, Stanley says, believes there are incidents that require home sharing to be regulated.
One big concern is absentee landlords. According to Stanley, home sales in the area have picked up alongside the growth of Airbnb. He is in talks with the local planning board on ways to identify the absentee landlords, “looking at requirements for local property managers or full-time neighboring owners to assist in response to any complaints or issues that may arise.” He notes, “We don’t want our neighborhoods to disappear to transient residency.”
That’s another challenge playing out upstate: how to regulate or prohibit buyers from purchasing properties specifically for short-term rentals. “In some instances there [have been] individuals buying houses for renting on short-term rental sites… contributing to a housing availability shortage for individuals wanting to move into an area,” says Mary Kay Vrba, president of Dutchess Tourism Inc. She considers the growth of Airbnb upstate to be “a two-edged sword”: it contributes to growth in tourism, but also concerns about regulation and neighborhood preservation.
Right now, no town has figured it out. The now-defeated legislation proposed by Beacon City Council stated that legal short-term rental owners “shall not include entity corporation, limited-liability company, partnership, association, a trustee, receiver or guardian of an estate, or mortgagee, lien holder, or other business entity.” The legislation also defined a short-term rental as a tenancy of fewer than 30 consecutive days.
Since the legislation was just defeated in late May, it’s unclear how the City Council will move forward. “The hope in Beacon is that the state will address this first, then the cities, towns, and counties can address it from a zoning perspective,” says the anonymous Beacon host.
That uncertainty is on the minds of Airbnb hosts who depend on home-sharing money as extra income or to subsidize their mortgage. Karine Bouis-Towe runs Retrograss Farm, a working farm with a garage she and her husband converted into an Airbnb unit in Ghent. “Making it economically viable, to live here on one salary and one farmer, we decided part of the farm needed to pull in a sizeable amount of income,” she says. Many of her guests, she notes, are families taking a break from the city.
Seth Porges rents out a glass tiny house in the Hudson Valley that’s gotten attention from the New York Times. He says becoming an Airbnb host has been “a godsend, financially”; 90 percent of his guests are from the city seeking a weekend getaway. “Staying here… it’s an experience,” he says.
And back in Beacon, Laeri Nast considers his role as an Airbnb host as “giving back”: he likes to travel with his dog and has a hard time finding accomodations, so he rents an Airbnb property that’s dog-friendly. He calls the proposed legislation from Beacon City Council “kind of draconian.”
“I’ve never had a complaint from a neighbor,” Nast notes. “My guests are so nice… in fact, a lot of my neighbors have said they love these people visiting from all over the world.” He’s still trying to figure out how things got so heated in Beacon. “It only got like this because some asshole cut down some trees.”