Short-Terming the Market: For the Many's "Homes Are Not Hotels" Campaign | Social Justice | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Mark Sanchez has never seen the housing situation in the Hudson Valley so tight. “It’s exceptionally difficult,” says the longtime Newburgh resident, who’s currently looking for a new apartment. Sanchez would like to stay in the city, but like other residents in Newburgh and elsewhere in the region, he is struggling with the extraordinary dearth and sky-high cost of housing.

“It’s really bad,” he says. “There are people who are just leaving Newburgh, who have to go to rural areas or further upstate, because there’s just no housing that’s available within the city. These are people who don’t necessarily want to move, but they’re being forced out.”

This scene Sanchez describes is familiar, and distressingly typical: in local conversations, Facebook groups, and a stream of articles, the problem of housing in the Hudson Valley is everywhere, and two-and-a-half years after the start of the pandemic, the situation is worse than ever.

For the Many (FTM) is one of the groups working to change this. The grassroots political organization’s current campaign—focused on an enforceable ban on short-term vacation rentals in five Hudson Valley municipalities—is one front in the effort to make the dent in a housing market gone insane. While no one expects it to be a panacea, the next several months will help to reveal whether the “Homes Are Not Hotels” effort can help prevent the Hudson Valley from becoming unlivable for all but the wealthy.

Why Short-Term Rentals?

While finding affordable housing in the Hudson Valley has long been difficult, the COVID-19 pandemic threw the problem into overdrive. The statistics are familiar: one study found a net gain of 30,000 residents in the Hudson Valley in 2020 alone, and at one point in 2020, the city of Kingston had the fastest rising home prices of anywhere in the United States.

Short-term rentals are one part of the problem, says Brahvan Ranga, the political director of FTM. “The crux of the issue is absentee investors coming in, buying up properties, and taking up housing stock so they can make a quick profit off of vacation rentals instead of renting them out to long-term residents,” he says.

A variety of data illustrates the severity of the issue. A recent report by the vacation rental company StayMarquis found that $278 million was spent on short-term rentals in the Hudson Valley in 2021, a 99 percent increase from the previous year. Growth was concentrated in Ulster and Greene counties, but every Hudson Valley county showed a revenue increase.

Ulster County, though, has been hit particularly hard: a July 2022 report put out by the County Comptroller March Gallagher found that three percent of the county’s housing stock—and 12 percent of its rental housing stock—were being offered as short-term rentals. The problem appears to be concentrated in cities like Kingston; Ranga points to data, based off industry sites AirDNA and Apartments.com, estimating that 66 percent of Kingston’s long-term housing is being taken up by short-term rentals (the numbers are only slightly lower in other large Hudson Valley municipalities: 58 percent in Newburgh, and 50 percent in Poughkeepsie).

FTM’s proposed legislation—which they have preliminarily targeted for Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Beacon, New Paltz, and Kingston—would take three primary actions to address the issue: ban all non-owner-occupied short-term rentals, or vacation rentals; create a registration process to ensure people offering short-term rentals only do so at their primary residence; and create a strong enforcement mechanism to keep hosts accountable and, if necessary, issue fines for violations.

Ranga emphasizes that the short-term rental problem is, in part, one of scope. “The issue isn’t someone renting out a spare bedroom in their home to make some extra cash,” he says. “The problem is absentee investors who don’t live on the property, taking up that housing stock as a vacation rental instead of renting it out to a long-term resident.”

Newburgh and Poughkeepsie Out Front

As FTM works to spread word of the campaign around the community, holding block parties, speaking to tenants, and lobbying elected officials, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie are at the head of the pack for passing legislation.

The two cities are, in some ways, natural choices: while both municipalities have their share of short-term rentals, neither has yet seen the extreme proliferation of Airbnb and VRBO listings that have defined places like Beacon or Hudson.

Anthony Grice, a city councilman in Newburgh who is working with FTM on the legislation, says that, for this reason, starting now is important. “Some [people say]: it’s not a problem now, so why deal with it?” he says. “But it is a problem… and I don’t think that’s wise for anybody in any situation to do, to wait until it becomes a bigger problem.”

Grice does not commit to a date to pass the legislation, saying that he’d like a housing vacancy study to be done first, but says he has “every intention of getting it passed.”

About 15 miles upriver, Poughkeepsie councilmember Megan Deichler says she intends to pass the legislation this year. “I’ve heard from many people who live in the city of Poughkeepsie who cannot afford their rent, they can’t find comparable rental properties within their budgets,” she says, describing the growing housing issue in the city. “The problem is only getting worse.”

She sees short-term rentals as one part of this issue. “We looked up the data as recently as a few weeks ago,” Deichler says in early September. “Over a third of the available rentals in the city of Poughkeepsie were short-term rentals. Month by month, it only increases.”

Deichler says she has yet to see opposition to the legislation in Poughkeepsie. But in Newburgh, Grice and Ranga both mention budding pushback from property owners in the city who balk at the proposed restrictions. (A Facebook group apparently comprised of some owners did not return a request for comment.)

Grice is listening to them, he says, but insists regulation is important. “My take has always been that we’re going to put people over profit,” Grice says. “When it comes to short-term rentals, they’re not the only problem, but they are part of the problem if we don’t keep them in line.”

The current campaign is not quite as far in New Paltz and Beacon. In the former, Ranga says FTM is focusing on the town of New Paltz (as opposed to the village), where many short-term rentals have migrated since the village banned vacation rentals in 2021. While Beacon does have some restrictions on the books, “the law just hasn’t been enforced at all,” says Ranga. He also sees a need to strengthen it.

Finally, in Kingston, some short-term rental regulation does exist: a 2021 city resolution amended the definition of “hotel” to include short-term rentals. But here too, FTM sees a need to do more. “The law just doesn’t go far enough to ensure registration of all short-term rentals or ban the vacation rentals,” says Ranga, also saying better enforcement is necessary. Ranga hopes to coordinate the push with an update to Kingston’s zoning code this fall.

Will it be Enough?

Everyone involved with the issue agrees that short-term rental regulation is important, but in a region overrun by a comprehensive housing crisis, how significant will these changes be?

Alex Wojcik, the deputy mayor of the village of New Paltz, has worked with FTM professionally, and spoke at the Homes Are Not Hotels campaign launch. She is also intimately familiar with the housing issue: a recent Times-Union profile highlighted Wojcik’s ongoing struggle to secure a new apartment in the village of New Paltz after her current rental was put on the market.

She agrees that short-term rentals are a part of the problem—and points to some success the village of New Paltz has had since enacting their own vacation rental ban. There is data, Wojcik says, indicating that “as soon as you get a couple of Airbnbs in a neighborhood, the general prices go up.”

Studies back this up, including a 2017 study from California and a 2016 study in Boston that correlated increased Airbnb listings with higher local rents and decreased supply of long-term housing. A 2018 study by the New York City comptroller also found that “for each one percent of all residential units in a neighborhood listed on Airbnb, rental rates in that neighborhood went up by 1.58 percent.”

In smaller municipalities, Wojcik sees the problem interlocking with others—some logistical, like enforcement. “On the village level, it’s hard to have teeth with a lot of these laws. It’s not the same thing as with a city, or a county, where you can slap fines on right away,” she says. “We don’t really have that kind of jurisdiction.”

She and others also see short-term rentals as distinctly detrimental to the character of small communities. Matt Osterhoudt is a Kingston homeowner who recently joined with his neighbors to get the city to shut down an illegal short-term rental in his residential Rondout neighborhood.

“It really is a quality of life issue, for people who actually live there,” says Osterhoudt. “People who are there for short-term rentals are there for a good time, are there for the weekend. Many of them don’t have any regard for the people who live around the neighborhood because they’re probably not coming back. They don’t really care.”

Wojcik describes the long-term implications of this problem in hollowing out a sense of community. “It’s been really hard getting people to fill the landlord-tenant relations council in the village, as well as all of our volunteer boards and commissions that literally run our operations,” she says. “A lot of people say they don’t want to make the commitment, not because of time or anything, they just don’t know how long they can commit to being here. Why finish a volunteer project for a community that you get displaced from?”

Housing as a Human Right

But Wojcik also points to deeper economic issues that don’t lend themselves to neat regulation. “We just have so many more people moving to the area now who can work remotely and who are better able to afford prices that anyone who lives and works in the Hudson Valley can’t afford,” she says.

“There’s a lot of different issues happening all at once, and it’s not just about supply,” Wojcik adds. “It’s about the jobs, what we get paid, it’s about how we preserve what housing is available for the people who do currently live and work and play here, and how we prevent the prices from going up.”

For reasons like these, at the root, all those working on or supportive of this campaign see short-term rentals as important—but as only one piece of the housing puzzle. At its core, Ranga sees the housing problem, particularly with respect to renting, as “a power imbalance between tenants and landlords, and the fact that we’re treating housing as a commodity, and not a right.”

Eli Berkowitz, an organizer with Community Voices Heard, a grassroots organization that fights for racial, social, and economic justice throughout New York, shares this view. “I really think our media narrative, our local governments, our state, county, federal governments need to be moved away from this idea that renters—because we don’t own—don’t deserve the same kind of rights and protections that ownership is supposed to [provide],” Berkowitz says.

Berkowitz believes this conception is particularly salient in the Hudson Valley, where he says some elected officials “seem to think that their constituencies are made up primarily or entirely of homeowners, and not renters, which is just not true.” He notes that Poughkeepsie is 86 percent renters—both an enormous voting base, and the ultimate source of the city’s property taxes.

While Berkowitz does agree that short-term rental restrictions in municipalities are crucial, he also wants to see stronger and broader action on the state level in support of the right to housing, in particular a statewide good cause eviction law. (“We think that’s probably the single biggest thing the state legislature can do to settle this issue once and for all and protect tenants across the state,” says For the Many’s Ranga, speaking about such legislation.)

For locals, like Newburgh resident Sanchez, the housing issue is immediate, and it’s not conceptual. “If you talk to local people on the street, they’re hurting, and they want to see change,” he says. “It’s not policy for them, it’s not this abstract political ideology. It’s literally: I can’t afford to live on Lander Street, or I can’t afford to live in the Heights, because I’m getting priced out and my landlord is threatening me.”

“It’s housing, it’s a human right,” he adds. “It shouldn’t be a profit-making industry. People have over the years turned it into that, and it’s really disgusting.”

 

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