A Map to the STRs: City Council rallies recommendations for regulating rentals

Break down the big task or get broken down by it.

City Council chose the former tack Monday in its continued meeting on the controversial topic of how to regulate short-term rentals — STRs — giving city staff a “roadmap” to follow, according to City Manager Steve Wheeler.

A week after Nov. 9’s inconclusive four-hour meeting on the issue, council spent half that time Monday dealing with the broad and fine points of STRs, via a document titled a “decision tree.” The step-by-step process allowed council, as Mayor Paul Blackburn put it, “to eat the elephant bite by bite.”

Council provided the Planning Commission enough to go on regarding the degree to allow STRs in residential areas and a framework for regulating rentals, and will present a set of recommendations later this fall. After the commission reviews them and conducts hearings, it will come back to council by late winter or early spring, along with further public comment opportunity.

“We all need to think clearly about what we’ve got,” Wheeler said.

“Last night City Council took one step back from shutting the door on tourism in Hood River,” said Hood River Vacation Rentals owner Libby Taylor. “Local property managers have worked diligently for the past decade to attract visitors to the Gorge year round. It is heartening that city councilors have acknowledged the necessity of providing a variety of housing options. Vacation rentals are the trim tab of the local economy.”

“There are a lot of moving pieces here, and we also have the rest of the city to run.”

Council reached consensus over creating an STR licensing and monitoring system, and some form of cap on the number of STRs permitted in the city — with a possible increase over the current estimate of 210 such rentals. No decisions on policy or code changes were made, but Wheeler and Planning Director Cindy Walbridge both took turns setting the issue in context.

“There will be more process on this topic,” Wheeler said. “Tonight hopefully will be a starting point to move on, but there will be some process going to Planning Commission, and (topics) that may wind back to council directly. We need a starting point to hand off an important policy matter for the city.”

Walbridge said after the meeting, “I think the council took a lot of information they picked up last week and they distilled it and they came up with how they want to limit short term rentals without punitively affecting too many people, and they did it an excellent job.”

Councilors Laurent Picard and Mark Zanmiller met a few days ago and had “a meeting of the minds,” after sitting in stark disagreement a week earlier, Picard advocating a total ban on STRs and Zanmiller calling for a strict cap.

“I’m optimistic,” Zanmiller said. Picard stated, “I think we might have a path forward.”

With Blackburn guiding the council through the six-step decision tree, council also reached consensus on establishing some phase-out period for all STRs; the current staff report suggests five years, but some councilors also suggested 10- and 15-year phase-out periods, with variations on permit extension periods.

Five councilors said they want some form of a cap on the total number of STRs, with Susan Johnson the lone voice favoring the option of capping it based on a population growth percentage formula.

Based on staff recommendations, it will be up to the Planning Commission to determine the method for setting the appropriate cap.

Council also agreed it wants to amend Title 17 of the municipal code “to define and allow short-term rental of rooms in primary residences” and “entire houses in primary residences.” Varying levels and types of controls are needed, but will be worked out later, councilors agreed. Any cap could be adjusted in the future, but only with council action following public input. Zanmiller stressed that well-defined evaluation criteria are needed for any changes to caps or other STR regulations.

Walbridge said that the city’s housing studies have shown that just 28 acres of land exist for creation of affordable housing, and that overall the housing issue involves two “threads”: livability and availability.

“In terms of livability and vacation homes in neighborhoods, it’s about things such as trash collection, occupancy, cars, and then there is the availability piece, and the availability of housing, and availability of any type of housing is something that is dwindling away in the City of Hood River and the urban growth boundary (UGB). We are surrounded by the Columbia River and the National Scenic Area and exclusive farm land.

“The expansion of the UGB is not going to be easy, so we have to plan that 28 acres very efficiently. That is why you got to the place where you set, in your strategy, limitations on short-term housing and that is what you are doing now,” Walbridge said of council action in July 2015.

On Monday Blackburn opened the floor to testimony from those who had not had a chance to speak at the Nov. 9 meeting, where speakers gave testimony, mostly defending the practice of vacation homes and other STRs.

“I know I might never own in this valley, but I’m afraid I might not be able to live in this valley,” said Phineas England, 29, a life-long Hood River resident. “It’s my town, too, and I don’t want it to become just a place for people to vacation on weekends.”

“My heart goes out to everyone who can’t afford a house, but they’re not related,” said Louis Taylor, countering the connection between STRs and overall housing costs. Taylor said he is relying on his job working for his mother’s vacation rental company to pay for college, adding, “I don’t know what Hood River would be without vacation homes. It’s incredible for the economy. It’s a part of my life and you can’t just take it away.”

“Houses aren’t low income houses, you wouldn’t sell your house for $250,000. There aren’t going to be houses you can afford if you’re working in a coffee shop,” Taylor said. “If they’re not rental houses, these houses are not going to be rented out. They’re going to stay empty, they’re going to be dark homes in our community. I don’t want dark homes in our community. A ghost town? That sounds terrible. Also, if you take away vacation homes, you’re taking away jobs, taking away low-income jobs, taking away contractor jobs, taking away — my job.”

April Gerlick said her husband, Matt, was hired a year ago as an HRVHS teacher and it took them more than two months to find a suitable rental for their family.

“I really hope we don’t have to move, but I don’t think we’ll be able to afford a house in Hood River and I hope we don’t have to move to White Salmon or Parkdale.”

Hood River’s Matt Bynum said, “Rare, if not non-existent, rare, is the well-made, reasonable in terms of wages, year-round rental.”

“I feel the failure to impose regulation on short-term rentals would be incredibly short-sighted,” said Noah Estes. “The long-term implications of such an act would be incredibly detrimental to the future of our economy.” He noted that people are sleeping under bridges at the same time the council is mulling STR regulations.

“I don’t think that’s justice, and I think it may be off the topic of short-term rentals, but as a student at the community college, I see more and more people who are commuting 30, 40, 60 miles just to come and get an education here because this is where the opportunity is.”

“I can’t pay people enough to equal what it takes to live here,” said Aaron Baumhackl, who said, “I speak for my employees” at Solstice Pizza Café, two of whom he said had lived in a homeless camp at least part of this year.

Jurgen Hess said, “My wife Susan and I came here 30 years go and I’m glad we came here when we did. We probably couldn’t afford to live here now. I believe short-term rentals drive up the cost of housing,” said Hess, who served on Hood River City Planning Commission for eight years. “We’ve seen it again and again. I do believe it’s a truism,” said Hess.

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