The trouble with STRs

 

Last updated 3/26/2024 at 10:30am



Living in a place like Sisters, we can all appreciate how visitors are drawn to its natural beauty, recreational activities, and small town charm. And there’s no arguing that tourists provide a healthy livelihood for many local businesses. But some are using that very rationale to defend an increase of STRs (short-term-residences, aka vacation rentals) in Sisters. But do we fully comprehend the price our town could pay if that happens?

I visited Jackson Hole a couple decades ago. Another beautiful “small” town that got discovered by tourists and grew too fast. As a result, many low wage workers were forced out of the affordable housing market. Retail, restaurant, hotel employees had to relocate to campgrounds, shared housing, or more affordable towns with a long commute. Sound familiar? I remember thinking that could be our town in twenty years, but hoped I was wrong. Seems I wasn’t.

Lincoln City experienced a similar form of over-growth, followed by the devastating consequences of too many STRs. Once again the workers who serve tourists and locals were squeezed out. So exactly how does a vacation rental impact affordable housing? Why should it matter if we pack in more STRs, doesn’t the tourist industry profit, and don’t hospitality taxes help the city?

Well, let’s keep it simple. Say an investor from Portland sees opportunity to pick up an inexpensive piece of property and purchases it. Then, using a management company, he allows the house to be rented for vacation use. Not a bad way to turn a profit if he doesn’t care about the impact on the neighborhood or community.

But the out-of-town owner doesn’t recognize how that same property previously provided an affordable rental home to a single mom supporting herself and teenage son with her job at BiMart. She now must search out new affordable housing. But where? A camp trailer in the woods? A friend’s attic? Prineville? She is essentially houseless.

And what about the neighbors who live next door to numerous STRs? I know a Sisters woman who owns a condo unit where, permitted or not, many apartments surrounding her are used as vacation rentals. Guests come and go, usurp street parking, and are often noisy and disruptive. According to City codes, this shouldn’t happen. But it does.

STRs are supposed to be a permitted use located at least 250 feet apart. But a quick check on some vacation rental site maps reveals how many appear to be located closer than that. I also discovered a surprisingly large number of STRs in Sisters. One lesser known site showed 161 rentals. And I’m guessing many STRs fly under the radar by not listing themselves on the better known sites. I realize City Hall is overwhelmed by recent growth, but is anyone really regulating STRs, or enforcing the current code and licensing requirements?

Meanwhile, there are those eager to allow even more vacation rentals. What is their motivation? As usual, with overdevelopment, follow the dollar. STRs have become a lucrative business and a very luring investment for out-of-town investors. And developers capitalize on a new excuse for additional housing, and profit by developing more land and building even more houses. All these new homes filling up the city limits will eventually force an increase to the UGB, which becomes another bone of contention for many who are concerned about local resources like water supply.

One of the reasons I love living in a small town is the sense of community. But if you live in a neighborhood where every other house has turned into an STR, what does it do to neighborliness? With people coming and going, any sense of “neighborhood watch” is compromised, leaving certain sections of town ripe for an increase in crime. And absentee homeowners, motivated purely by investment purposes, don’t contribute much to small town life and community values.

An abundance of STRs competes with our local hotels and accommodations already trying to stay in business. So, ask yourself, who really profits from the increase of STRs in our town? Out-of-town investors? Greedy developers? And what is the price the rest of us pay for their gains? Is it worth it?

 

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