Are ‘Zoom Towns’ Making Housing Less Affordable?

The CFO of a vacation-rental management company recently told Oregon Public Broadcasting that 20% of people renting a vacation home did so for the first time during the pandemic. The nonprofit state policy news site Stateline sees a larger trend: Even before the pandemic, the destination towns of the West had a shortage of affordable housing. Limited supply, the remote nature of some of the communities, zoning restrictions and even short construction seasons all contributed. But the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated everything, including the rise of so-called Zoom towns. Freed from physical offices, suddenly people could live, work and recreate in the vacation communities of the West, with few needs beyond a high-speed internet connection to do jobs that formerly required their presence in major cities. It also in recent years became much easier for owners of second homes to list vacancies with internet-based property firms that promise a steady cash flow in places with seasonal, tourism-based economies. When those homes enter the short-term vacation rental pool, they're no longer available to the local workforce. Brian Chesky, Airbnb's CEO, said recently that about one-fifth of the company's business by room nights is now stays of 30 days or more. People are booking longer stays that combine work and leisure, an area the company sees as full of potential growth... There are few statewide efforts to address the effects of short-term rentals; some states, such as Idaho, outright prohibit local governments from enacting bans.... In general, the vacation rental industry also fights efforts to enact short-term moratoriums or bans... [F]ew popular tourist communities in the West have enough affordable options for the staff necessary to run a vacation destination in peak season. In Montana, people who can't afford the rent in some tourist towns have been camping more regularly on public lands in the vicinity, encroaching on grizzly territory. The housing shortage has led directly to more encounters between bears and people, said Bill Avey, a National Forest supervisor in the region. In Whitefish, a gateway to Montana's Glacier National Park, the lack of affordable workforce housing in 2021 forced nearly all food- or beverage-related businesses to curtail hours or close at least one day a week at the height of the summer tourist season, said Lauren Oscilowski, who owns the Spotted Bear Spirits distillery. Over the past year, about half the people on her 11-person team have been forced to move because their landlords decided to turn their housing into more lucrative short-term rentals. "There's this national thing where hospitality people aren't returning to hospitality because the wages are too low, or they're sick of dealing with the public or whatever it is," Oscilowski said. "But that's just a piece of it. The bigger piece for us is really housing...."

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