2018-05-31 / Opinion

Editorial

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

This was the title of a “Sesame Street” song from 1971 that bears repeating in our City by the Sea. One of the hottest topics facing our municipality, besides city budgets and school safety and finances, is the concern over how online overnight and short-term stays (the most prevalent being Airbnb.com and HomeAway.com) are affecting the fabric of our community and our neighborhoods.

Let’s be clear, we are not specifically calling out the Airbnb corporation, but using the name as a synonym for online rentals, as “Kleenex” is interchangeable with a tissue and “Xerox” a photocopy. Looking at various websites, there are more than 400 short-term vacation rentals listed for Newport.

The Airbnb dilemma is not unique to Newport; the pros and cons of this new platform are debated regularly, and it is considered a “disruptor” by many in a changing marketplace, and a boon to others. The online vacation rental phenomenon now makes part-time residency by out-of-state property owners more affordable, if not downright profitable, by offsetting their costs.

It is being talked about nationwide and especially in vacation and resort towns and cities. Our local legislators are talking about it at the Statehouse, fire marshals are reviewing safety standards, zoning inspectors are called out to address complaints, and the volunteers on the zoning commission are faced with an ever-increasing request for more conversion approvals. (See an overview of what faced this month’s scheduled zoning commission meeting.)

Ironically, we’ve practically come full circle. At the onset of the Gilded Age, the wealthy barons came to Newport to build their “summer cottages.” But surrounding those cottages and beyond the famed mansions there were (and still are) neighborhoods, street upon street, where blocks of homes reach from one side of the island to the other.

Bisecting the residential neighborhoods there are, of course, several commercial corridors. Our suggestion is to let those who own commercial property convert the spaces above the retail shops or restaurants into overnight accommodations. This may put a strain on the availability of small office space, but our savvy business community should be able to figure it out.

Let’s keep the commercial use of homes out of our residential neighborhoods. People are purchasing houses for the sole purpose of creating revenue through online short-term rentals. Why wouldn’t this be the case, with a handful of overnight stays a month now being almost comparable to what monthly rents used to yield?

Our local real estate agents have strong opinions about the “unintended consequences” of the Airbnb phenomenon. Families looking to buy or rent a home to live in now question who and how many of their prospective new neighbors actually reside next door.

Citizens move into residential neighborhoods so as NOT to have a business operating next door. Would Airbnb operators want zoning laws skirted so a construction company could begin doing business out of the home next to them?

Street upon street now contain dark and empty houses during the weekdays. Is this the track we want our city to continue on? Do we want to see our residential neighborhoods become a place where there are no next-door neighbors? The days of going next door to borrow a cup of sugar are probably long gone. But do we see our neighborhoods as places to live, or to make money?

Although the city is being proactive by hiring a company to identify properties not paying the appropriate taxes, a workshop needs to be called to address this situation. It would be enlightening if some of the “summer people” or other part-time home owners could come and give us their viewpoint.

One lady at a recent neighborhood meeting said she had invited a senior executive of Airbnb to stay at her house and experience first-hand what she experiences most weekends with the increase of cars and noise on her street since the proliferation of the short-term renter. Let’s hope he comes and maybe even attends a neighborhood workshop.

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