Short-term rentals balloon in Highland

Some fear their quiet neighborhoods are turning into profit centers

By Pamela Chergotis
Posted 12/4/23

ELDRED, NY — One by one, applicants hoping to turn their …

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Short-term rentals balloon in Highland

Some fear their quiet neighborhoods are turning into profit centers

Posted

ELDRED, NY — One by one, applicants hoping to turn their single-family homes into profitable short-term rentals came before the planning board to make their case. 

The Highland Town Hall was packed on November 29. When board chair Norm Sutherland announced the number of new applicants—six—a murmur of surprise rippled through the crowd.

The transition has been jarring to some. Older residents, like the Montgomery Lake property owners who attended the meeting, said they’d always known their neighbors. Now, that’s not the case. Six of the approximately 20 houses around the lake are now B&Bs, they said. And they were at that evening’s public hearing to express their concerns about yet another one. 

“We’re at a tipping point,” said one Montgomery Lake resident.

He said he and his neighbors had always lived secure in the knowledge that their lake community was strictly residential, only to find themselves living in a commercial profit center. “Is he going to be a neighbor?” he asked of the latest applicant. “Or is he going to be an absentee landlord?”

Other Montgomery Lake residents expressed their worries for the environment—what if guests used gasoline-powered boats or otherwise despoiled the water? They said guests were already trespassing on their properties and taking their boats out for a spin.

In January, B.J. Gettel, a town code official, presented the town board with an application form newly created for property owners looking to rent their houses to tourists. “In short, you’re trying to promote business here,” Gettel told the board at the time, according to town records. “That’s the whole idea behind your short-term rental. You’re trying to promote business.”

The board agreed to give qualified short-term rental applicants a special use permit, which costs a fee and must be renewed annually. Infractions can get the permit yanked, so it is incumbent on the landlord to make sure their guests do not disturb the neighbors.

The Montgomery Lake applicant, Micah Burgess, said no more than four guests at a time will occupy his two-bedroom house. He said it’s very important to him to be a good neighbor, and he gave assurances that his guests will comply with the rules. Perimeter cameras will help him monitor the property, he said.

Burgess said he and his wife purchased the lake house for their children to enjoy. They all “love it here,” he said. The family spent Thanksgiving at the lake and plans to visit several times a year. They want to keep the house in good shape and the lake pristine.

Planning board says it does serious vetting

Town attorney Michael Davidoff said the planning board was obliged to give a negative declaration—which attests that the project will not have a negative effect on the environment—to a project as long as it meets town standards.

“If we approve this,” he said, “it just says that it conforms with town code.”

Sutherland told the public that applicants had to complete a 17-page application. The approval process might seem “cookie-cutter” to those in the audience, he said, but the vetting done beforehand was rigorous.

Gettel said in January that inspections would be done on all would-be rentals, in acknowledgment of the hazards possible when occupants are unfamiliar with the workings of a house. “The things that I look for on a rental inspection are pretty much common sense, things as the oil burner being cleaned,” Gettel told the town board, according to town records. “Has the chimney been cleaned? Do we have smoke detectors? Do we have carbon monoxide detectors? How does the electrical panel look? Is the property neat and clean? Do we have a dumpster; is the dumpster clean; these are all typical things that we would be looking for. Is there exterior lighting and is the lighting overflowing onto the neighbor’s property? What type of screening is around the property?”

Karen MacIntyre, a long-time former resident who now lives in Texas, said she wants to rent her home on Woods Road short-term because she hasn’t been able to find long-term renters who can afford what she feels the house is worth.

She spoke with emotion about the beauty of her hand-crafted house, which she wants to keep for her daughter to inherit.

“I don’t want to lose my homestead,” she said of her house on Woods Road. “I can’t find anybody to rent it long-term who will pay what I think is reasonable.”

According to Realtor.com, apartments for rent in Sullivan County have a median monthly rental price of $1,850. The site lists 59 “active apartments” for rent in the county. 

By contrast, the Town of Highland alone saw 34 applications for short-term rentals in eight months. Barryville rentals listed on Airbnb average around $150 a night, producing in less than two weeks the same revenue a long-term rental would produce in a month.

The downside

Some studies have found that short-term rentals drive up the cost of housing for long-term residents. In 2021, Airbnb adopted a policy to answer that problem, stating it will “ban new listings when a city notifies us that the listings are located at rental properties where the tenant has been evicted due to nonpayment.” 

The rate of evictions in Sullivan County has soared since the moratorium on evictions was lifted with the end of the COVID emergency. It has the sixth-highest eviction rate in the state, with 8.3 percent of renter households evicted in 2022.

Highland’s housing stock is worth more than the county average. From 2017 to 2021, the median value of an owner-occupied house in Highland was $223,900, according to the U.S. Census. By contrast, the median value of an owner-occupied house in Sullivan County was $185,700. Both are under the statewide average of $340,600.

The median household income in Highland is $56,361 and per capita income is $43,993, according to Census data. In this case, the town’s average comes under the county average of $63,393 per household and $33,037 per capita. Statewide, the median household income is $75,157 and per capita income is $43,208.

The town is undergoing a change that, once you take a step back, appears cyclical. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the town of Highland brimmed with boarding houses. Farmers and other property owners were able to draw more value out of their properties by renting them out to city dwellers hankering for fresh air and sublime landscapes.

The informational brochure “The Historic Walking/Driving Tour of Barryville, New York” says there were 30 boarding houses in Barryville by the end of the 19th century. One of them, the Spring House, opened in 1899 and has been restored. Its first proprietor, George Layman, offered guests “an excellent waterfront, well-shaded lawns, and everything conducive to health and comfort.”

SOURCES

“The Historic Walking/Driving Tour of Barryville, New York”: barryvilleny.com/wp-content/uploads/Barryville_History_Walk.pdf

“Echo Hill and Mountain Grove: Stories of the Families and Boarding Houses in the Town of Highland, New York 1880-1920”: halfwaybrook.com/wp-content/pdf/EHMGLookInside.pdf

United States Census Bureau: census.gov/quickfacts

Town of Highland meeting minutes: townofhighlandny.com/meeting-minutes

“Is Home Sharing Driving up Rents?”: University of Massachusetts. Boston: https://repec.umb.edu/RePEc/files/2016_03.pdf

“Are Short-term Vacation Rentals Contributing to the Housing Crisis?”: https://granicus.com/blog/are-short-term-vacation-rentals-contributing-to-the-housing-crisis

short-term rentals, Airbnb, Town of Highland Planning Board

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