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Editorial: Moratorium is essential; Take the time to find solutions

  • Written by Sharon Kivisto

Is it right that the safe, friendly neighborhoods created by islanders have become a commodity marketed by people who don't live here? Is it right that the quality of life in island neighborhoods is being lowered so mainland investors and off-island LLCs  can make a profit?

The moratorium on permitting new vacation rentals enacted by San Juan County Council in January affords the county the time to gather the facts, develop regulations that control the total number of vacation rentals and mitigate the impacts on infrastructure and neighborhoods. It's pausing the process and allowing a holistic view of the situation. No one already possessing a permit is affected. 

Having vacation rentals is an option that has enabled some islanders to make a living and helped others keep the family home. However the influx of off-island investors  taking housing stock off the market so they can be used as vacation rentals is exacerbating the problem of the shortage of housing for people living and working in the islands.

The problems associated with vacation rentals are not unique to the San Juan Islands. Communities large and small across the globe are wrestling with higher prices, shortage of housing, and negative impacts on neighborhoods.

According to "The economic costs and benefits of Airbnb" a report by the Economic Policy Institute:

"The economic costs Airbnb imposes likely outweigh the benefits. While the introduction and expansion of Airbnb into U.S. cities and cities around the world carries large potential economic benefits and costs, the costs to renters and local jurisdictions likely exceed the benefits to travelers and property owners...

"Rising housing costs are a key problem for American families, and evidence suggests that the presence of Airbnb raises local housing costs. The largest and best-documented potential cost of Airbnb expansion is the reduced supply of housing as properties shift from serving local residents to serving Airbnb travelers, which hurts local residents by raising housing costs...

"There is evidence this cost is real: Because housing demand is relatively inelastic (people’s demand for somewhere to live doesn’t decline when prices increase), even small changes in housing supply (like those caused by converting long-term rental properties to Airbnb units) can cause significant price increases."

San Juan County Council would be wise to continue the moratorium while a balance is sought between those seeking profits and those wanting to preserve their neighborhoods. Attempting to do the work without a moratorium would be like trying to put out an inferno while you're still inside the house. 

A lot has changed since Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock overruled the Board of Adjustment in 1999 and limited what could be considered when issuing Conditional Use Permits.

It'll take courage on the part of the three Council members to do the hard work involved. It's especially difficult when dealing with an issue that is emotional for many. But it can be done and the county will be better off for going through a thorough process. 

It's time we took a pause in permitting and created rules that provide balance and protect what drew us all to these beautiful islands in the first place. 

This article has been changed since it was first posted. The word corporation has been removed and replaced with mainland LLCs. I apologize for any confusion.