A room with a view

Short-term rentals bring tourists here and boost county finances. But a few bad apples create regulation issues

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 12/8/20

REGION — When COVID-19 hit, Ann and Noam Freedman knew what to do.

They own Lake Jeff Cottage, a short-term rental in Jeffersonville, NY, and they’ve been renting to weekenders for 13 …

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A room with a view

Short-term rentals bring tourists here and boost county finances. But a few bad apples create regulation issues

Posted

REGION — When COVID-19 hit, Ann and Noam Freedman knew what to do.

They own Lake Jeff Cottage, a short-term rental in Jeffersonville, NY, and they’ve been renting to weekenders for 13 years. 

During the pandemic, they switched to two-month rentals. That allowed for a two-week quarantine and left plenty of time for tenants to enjoy the area. “We made sure they stayed quarantined,” Ann said, but there weren’t problems. “It was so bad in the city” that tenants took the virus seriously here, too.”I’m just grateful that we had great tenants.” 

They also made sure that tenants had adequate supplies for the quarantine. 

The pandemic’s not over, of course, and she says that people are still looking to get away. It’s shifted from months to “three or four nights and weekends.”

Likely there’ll be a market for short-term rentals for a long time to come. They generate business, taxes and visitors who come back. But problems have arisen, too; short-term-rental owners, the county and towns are working on solutions. 

The good 

“Short-term rentals are often a nice introduction to the area for people who subsequently do become homeowners,” said Alan Li, co-owner of Catskill Concierge, which manages properties as well as providing concierge services to homeowners. They work with short-term rentals too, ensuring that the whole visit goes well.

The typical renters are “several families wanting to spend time together and relax in a country setting. A good local management company can help them understand local norms which may be a little different from city life,” he wrote in an email.

“On one side, you have people bringing in taxes,” said District 5 Legislator George Conklin, the former supervisor of the Town of Fremont. Short-term rentals also create jobs in the community, he added. Not just contractors, but in local grocery stores, shops and cleaning companies.

When he was a supervisor, Conklin didn’t have a lot of trouble with short-term rentals. “In Fremont, it’s so rural” that houses are really isolated, he said. “They aren’t causing any heartache for the neighbors.” 

And then there’s the financial end

By September 10, Sullivan County had collected $830,869 in room tax, said county treasurer Nancy Buck.

That’s still down $111,000 from 2019. But in a year that’s featured massive unemployment, closed stores and quarantine? Closed casinos, closed waterpark, closed hotels?

It’s impressive.

“The number of people renting is way up,” she said. Most are renting in the short term since hotels were closed. Short-term rentals are supposed to collect the five-percent room tax, which is divided between the Sullivan County Visitors Association and the county. 

In a time when stores and restaurants can’t pack people in, and some don’t have extra income to shop anyway, sales tax is down. So room tax isn’t just a bright spot—it’s helping to keep the county afloat.

Sometimes problems arise

Problems range from fire safety to complaints about trespassing to crowded conditions to noise. 

When it comes to fire regulations, short-term rentals are considered transient housing and are essentially a single-family home without the owner present. Tenants may have access to fireplaces or woodstoves but lack experience in using them, said Narrowsburg assistant fire chief Stephen Stuart. So local, volunteer-run fire companies are concerned that fire safety regulations get addressed. Fire codes are expected to be a major part of discussions at the county and town level.

Other problems can be averted by communication between owner/manager and tenant.

“Without clear guidelines, sometimes renters stray onto neighboring lands, especially in rural areas where boundaries often are not marked with fences, as is common in cities,” Li said. 

Unsafe crowding can be a problem, too. At the county’s executive committee meeting in October, legislative chair Rob Doherty said, “In Smallwood, it’s a huge issue: a three-bedroom cabin with 20 people.”  

Short-term rentals see parties over multiple days, legislator Joe Perrello put in. Legislator Luis Alvarez had heard complaints in Kiamesha.

No one’s denying there are a few bad apples. Local police can step in, but not every community has a department, and code enforcement officers usually work weekdays. The sheriff’s department can’t be everywhere at once, legislators said.

Population density matters, too; closely spaced houses are more likely to generate noise complaints. It’s something for owners to consider as they think about renting out their second homes.

And problems, Li stressed, are rare. Communication and clarity seem to be key.

Solutions

The treasurer’s office has a staff member who focuses on room tax, working with the towns to get owners registered, Buck said. The towns know what’s being rented. Towns and the county “need to work together to get the whole picture,” she said. 

Licensing might be a possibility, said Conklin. And he favors judicious regulation: Think of an apartment building with fire regulations that keep people safe. 

Any money, like from licensing fees, would be shared with the towns.

Prevention starts with the owners. “When homeowners speak to prospective renters, most people are very forthcoming about who they are and what they plan to do,” wrote Li. Evasive prospective tenants are “usually an easy sign that they intend to party at your home.” Discussion beforehand can head off issues and help guests have a better idea of local norms.

Ann Freedman requires her tenants to be over 25 and buy their own insurance. They sign a contract, and she and Noam make sure that they understand the rules and regulations.

She is deeply grateful to her tenants, and she’s thankful that nobody has gotten sick. Renting Lake Jeff Cottage gives her a chance to share the area with others. “We love Sullivan County,” she said.

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