For decades, short-term vacation rentals have been a part of the island’s economy. But now that short-term rentals are showing up in traditional year-round neighborhoods, it’s clear they are having an impact on housing prices — and more importantly — making it harder for year-round people to make a life here. Click on the sections below to follow our journey to finding solutions to this very real problem.

What is the goal here?

If you’ve been part of the island for a decade or more, the same problems likely continue to pop up on your radar screen. Traffic, growth, harbor and pond water quality, and perhaps Nantucket’s biggest problem, the lack of accessible, affordable housing for people who live here year-round.

Frustrations abound. We all have a strong sense of the problems but the solutions are elusive. And anyone who has wanted to create change and alter the way the island works for the good of the community has been accused of pulling up the drawbridge as soon as “they have theirs.”

This has had a chilling effect on change.

Our organization was created to study and address these problems. For 12 months at ACK•Now, we’ve talked to a lot of people and the same themes continued to come up. many well-established and intelligent people on-island have often mentioned investor-owned short-term rentals as the lynchpin of many of the island’s problems. “You ought to take a look at that,” they say. Data on the subject was scarce at the time —even if anecdotal info was plentiful —so we set out to dig deeper.

Short-term rentals have been a way of life on Nantucket for several generations. So ubiquitous has the practice been that many people, us included initially, assumed that short-term rentals were just a necessary and economically beneficial part of how the island works. It’s how many old-timer islanders were able to afford their homes. It’s part of the Nantucket experience, right?

Not so fast.

What actions has ACK•Now taken?

Our first instinct was to look at services like Airbnb, VRBO, and the like to see what impact, good or bad, they were having on the island. We asked: Has anyone looked at this issue elsewhere? Based on many news stories, internet-enabled short-term rentals were having a negative impact in places like New Orleans, New York City, Santa Fe, and San Francisco and some have tried to push back on the trend. Looking at these popular destinations, it was apparent that many places were wrestling with the impacts but few had solutions that might work here. 

Which got us to look at the situation even more closely. 

Then some data became available to us that did not exist until recently. 2019 was the first year that short-term rental operators needed to register with the Commonwealth for the purposes of paying their lodging tax. (2020 provided even more data due to increased compliance.) This represented our first big break. Quickly we could analyze the information submitted by people who were renting out their homes and see if there were any patterns.

We set out to gather all of the available info and data into a white paper and some short-form pieces to help bring this information to a larger audience. You can read those pieces here [link].

What are the major findings?

There currently exists a great deal of detailed information in our white paper: The long and short-term of it – The impact of short-term rentals on Nantucket. And in our one-sheet digests of this data. Again, You can read those pieces here [link]. But here are the basic findings. 

  • There are around 2,000 properties registered on the island dedicated to short-term rentals — Or around 20% of the housing inventory of Nantucket. The number may be higher due to compliance issues. The constant turnover of an estimated 8,500 of these “mini-hotel” beds is one reason we see so much activity in the summertime and shoulder seasons. One might think this is a net positive for the island economy, but…
  • 80% of registered rentals are owned by off-island individuals and businesses. This means most of the economic benefits of these businesses are not staying on-island. 
  • Investors, businesses, and vacation clubs are operating mini-hotels in residential neighborhoods which can be disruptive to the people who already live there. (If you have experienced this, we would like to hear from you. Please send an email to info@acknow.org with the subject line “My short-term rental story.”)
  • Nantucket lost 600 year-round rentals in 8 years despite the booming construction market which added approximately 590 housing units during the same time period. 
  • The gap between what a first-time homebuyer and year-round resident can pay and what an investor is willing to pay given the investment upside is growing. (We are currently working on developing a data set to illustrate this phenomenon. Stay tuned) What this means is purchasing a home on Nantucket is basically out of reach for a teacher, fireman, waiter, or carpenter. 25 years ago, this was not the case. 
  • The tax savings that commercial short-term rentals can take advantage of are significant and fly under the radar for most islanders. These businesses pay a residential property tax when other businesses on-island pay a commercial property tax which is 1.7X higher. Essentially, we are all subsidizing these businesses; the playing field is not level. 

What can we do about it?

Before any solutions are implemented, we need to discuss this as a community. There are going to be strong voices on all sides of this issue and in order for the island to come together and fix this problem, there needs to be a community-wide dialog and consensus so that we can be sure the solution is good for the island as a whole, not just a few. 

That said, there are three broad approaches that the town can explore.

  1. Taxes and fees: Level the playing field by removing artificial subsidies and taxing short-term rental businesses as businesses. We could also require the inspections and permits that other commercial entities on the island must adhere to like yearly fire inspections, health codes, and other permits to ensure the safety and code adherence of all businesses. 
  2. Zoning changes: Currently many commercial entities are not allowed in all zoning districts. But commercial short-term rentals have found a loophole. Changing the definitions within our zoning code will require a 2/3rds majority vote at town meeting, which is a high bar, but it ensures that these measures get a fair hearing in public. 
  3. Caps or bans: With 20% of our housing stock dedicated to short-term rentals currently, this problem can only get worse. Banning or capping these businesses for a period of time could allow the rest of the island to catch up. A cap or ban could be implemented island-wide or only in certain neighborhoods. 

Next steps?

We have seen evidence of abundant hope and optimism on the part of many housing advocates that we can solve this problem as a community. But it will take an effort on behalf of all kinds of islanders from all walks of life and experience. 

As we said, the remedies above are broad strokes. A community-wide dialog similar to what we had 30 years ago with the comprehensive plan can help fill in the details and ensure a workable remedy. 

ACK•Now is dedicated to bringing to light all of the available information and facilitating an island-wide conversation moving forward. If you’d like to be a part of that, please join our mailing list [link] to receive timely updates, ideas, and insights. 

We are scheduling a series of online seminars with housing and planning experts from the island and other municipalities. Dates and times pending.