On Matters Relating to Housing & Short-Term Rental Regulation in Conway, New Hampshire

On April 13th, 2021, there will be a Town of Conway election that includes voting on long-term housing initiatives and short-term rental regulations.

As smaller surrounding towns in the valley often craft their own policies borrowing bits and pieces from Conway, the effects of this election will likely extend beyond Conway town boundaries. Please share, if you can, with those in the valley who might benefit from a summary of what is to be voted on in the upcoming Conway election.

Summary:

Articles 4 & 5 specifically regarding long-term housing — Vote YES for long-term housing in the valley.

Articles 2, 3, 6, 21, 22, 23 regarding the regulation of Short-Term Rentals in Conway.

Vote YES on ALL articles if you want the town to regulate Short Term Rentals by requiring an official STR license, a local ‘agent’ to respond to issues 24/7, and enforce strict rules including but not limited to noise, max occupancy, parking, etc.

For what it’s worth, these articles have all been recommended by the board of selectman and planning board as per the official deliberative warrant document. (https://conwaynh.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/20210219-POSTED-WARRANT-Final.pdf )

Vote NO* if you do not want the town to regulate short-term rentals as described in the articles.

*There is speculation from some that a “No” vote, specifically in Article 3, could lead to the ban of STRs based on language in the existing zoning ordinance. Personally, for reasons I will explain below, I feel the “No” position may lead to “more of the same” where the town has no power to deal with even the worst of the STR party properties. I would advise caution around where you get your information regarding the consequences of the “No” position as the town, as far as I’m aware, has not stated what they will do in that scenario.

Long Version / Opinion:

My primary goal in writing this up is to attempt to explain and clarify, not to persuade, but I’ll attach my personal opinion with a clearly labeled “My Take” section. Please know that all opinions expressed herein are my own, and I’m not trying to speak on behalf of “locals” in any way. Additionally, I’m reserving the right to make edits if someone with more authority on the subject finds any notable errors or omissions in my summaries, or more clarifying information is released by the town prior to the election.

The summaries below are my personal interpretations of the full Town of Conway Deliberative Warrant doc here: https://conwaynh.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/20210219-POSTED-WARRANT-Final.pdf

To start, the two articles that will clearly benefit long-term housing are articles 4 and 5.

Now for the more controversial, and confusing, items — short-term rental regulations. There are technically 6 separate articles on the ballot regarding STRs, but they should be considered a “package deal” as they all rely on each other.

My Take:

If you want the town to be able to regulate STRs and enforce rules on things like noise, max occupancy, parking, trash removal, etc. you should vote Yes to ALL of the above-mentioned articles so the town can establish the comprehensive regulation system fully described in this document: https://conwaynh.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/STR-Regulations-Accepted-by-BOS.pdf

The “No” position is a bit less straightforward.

Those that are vehemently opposed to STRs altogether would likely vote no on at least article 3 with hopes that this may “ban” short-term rentals. While I can follow the logic, I am yet to see any evidence that the town would be willing and/or able to enforce the existing zoning language that it has not up to this point even attempted to enforce. Personally, I don’t see it happening, but I could be wrong. Note - those who fall into this category may consider voting yes on the other articles that support regulation such as to not vote inline with and effectively support the third group.

This third group, which I predict to be the smallest of the three I’ve identified here, would be the most ardent defenders of STRs and/or personal property rights who don’t feel the town government should have any hand in regulating STRs. They will, of course, vote against the regulations.

Most STR hosts I’ve chatted with, primarily via participating in or observing various Facebook “debates”, are in favor of the regulations because they know it will finally give the town the authority to shut down the few bad eggs that are ruining things for everyone else — locals and respectable STR hosts alike.

I have nothing but respect for those that feel it will be best for the valley to vote “No” with the hopes that STRs will be banned.

I do feel, though, that if you think the vote going “No”, specifically on article 3, means all the short term rentals will suddenly cease to exist and the Conway police will start ticketing anyone renting short term the day (or week, or year) after the vote you’re vastly underestimating what it would take to shut down the over 600 STRs in Conway. There is also debate surrounding whether or not the town would even have the legal grounds to enforce the existing zoning language as it's currently written — I won’t speculate on this, that’s for the lawyers to figure out.

I feel the much more likely scenario in a “No” vote is that it ends up going right back to what the situation is now, where the town has no authority or framework from which they can regulate short-term rentals and so the 3 am drunken screaming and fireworks continue. Whether this occurs because the town chooses not to act, or because the ability to act is hampered by arduous litigation I’m not sure.

Regarding affordable housing as it relates to short-term rentals in the valley:

I don’t think the housing crisis stems from STRs, at least not entirely. I believe instead it is the cumulative effect of the town’s archaic and unreasonably restrictive zoning and codes that have for decades placed too many hurdles and restrictions in the way of construction for anything other than traditional single-family homes on large lots. I’m not saying I want a bunch of big ugly apartment buildings going up everywhere, but well-planned multi-generational cluster communities of small multi-family homes or even tiny(-ish) homes that are prohibited from renting on a short-term basis? That would be nice.

I’m not saying STRs aren’t hurting affordable housing- they’re sure as hell not helping — I’m just saying I don’t think it’s as simple as pointing the finger at all “those damn AirBnBs” as if getting rid of them would solve the issue overnight. This fantasy that short-term rentals will be banned by the town and the wealthy STR hosts from Boston will cry, become unable to pay their mortgages, and be forced to sell their properties to locals is just that — a fantasy. Even if it did come true, even partially, I don’t believe those homes sold would magically end up in the hands of working families and long-term tenants. Perhaps a few would, but I think most would just become primarily vacant second homes for flatlanders with higher purchasing power as many of them were before AirBnB came around. This has only become more exacerbated by Covid with remote workers keeping their high city salaries and working remotely from low cost of living rural areas. Look around, towns with far less tourism presence are also in a housing crisis which to me suggests this is not just a STR problem, it’s a policy problem. So if you feel the need to point a finger, point it at the local government and pay attention to who gets elected to your town's planning and zoning board. Less “old guard”, and more “fresh perspectives from diverse backgrounds” would be helpful.

These are my opinions at the moment formed from the information and knowledge that I’ve collected over the last few months reading articles and books about housing, browsing the town ordinance documents, and sitting in on the Short Term Rental Committee Zoom meetings. I personally believe the best path forward for the valley is to vote yes to all the above-mentioned articles and adopt the regulation system compiled by the Short Term Rental Committee. I think this will give the town the ability to reprimand the few bad egg rentals that are terrorizing neighborhoods, and furthermore, I think it makes the STR play a bit less desirable for the group of STR hosts that were purchasing properties purely as hands-off investments as opposed to the many hosts that rent as a way to offset costs of ownership on their second homes.

I understand people will likely disagree with my position and I’m open to discussing these issues with anyone that would like to do so. Thanks for reading.