Business & Economy

4 questions about short-term rentals in Burlington, answered

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If Burlington’s effort to regulate short-term rentals were a symphony, Monday could mark the last movement’s epic climax.

City councilors are voting on a proposal Monday night that would put a check on the industry’s ability to expand. This comes after two and a half years of debating how to balance the economic value of the properties — which, through sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, lodge guests for a period of up to one month — with their potential to eat up the region’s supply of housing. 

The council is in unanimous agreement on some basic principles. They all recognize that Burlington’s housing crisis has hit a crescendo, as the city struggles with a less than 1% vacancy rate. They also concur that short-term rentals should be required to register with the city — something that is not explicitly stated in Burlington’s ordinances. 

Beyond that, the 12-member council — which is split evenly between Progressives and non-Progressives — disagree over how severely the state’s largest city should clamp down on a booming method of travel accommodations. 

The proposal before them Monday is largely identical to one councilors voted down in March. At that time, the body passed a more restrictive ordinance that would have barred nearly all short-term rentals in the city, but Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger vetoed the resolution.

Ahead of the showdown, VTDigger has compiled a list of questions and answers about the issue.

What is the proposal that the City Council is set to vote on?

Dave Hartnett listens as the Burlington City Council hears public comment on the city's regulation of short-term rentals on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The proposed ordinance would require that short-term rentals exist within the host’s primary residence, called an owner-occupied short-term rental, with some exceptions.

One exception that all councilors agree on: If someone owns a building besides their primary residence with multiple residential units, they can lease one unit as a short-term rental if they lease out another unit in the same building to someone who is eligible for federal or state housing assistance.

But the proposal on the table Monday night includes additional exemptions that have proven more controversial.

Under the proposal, which was put forth by Councilor Sarah Carpenter, D-Ward 4, the same rules apply, but a property owner can also get an exception if the long-term rental unit meets the city’s “Inclusionary Zoning” standards, which sit above the level of government rental assistance but below market rate. Right now, a single person making less than $67,200 per year is eligible for an inclusionary zoning unit. 

Carpenter’s proposal also allows “accessory dwelling units” — residential units that are constructed on a homeowner’s property — to be leased as short-term rentals, even if the owner doesn’t live in the unit.  

In addition, the ordinance before councilors on Monday would charge short-term rental hosts a 9% tax on each transaction. That money would be directed to the city’s “Housing Trust Fund,” which helps finance affordable housing development. 

Under both proposals, someone could lease their primary residence as a whole-unit short-term rental (renting an entire unit instead of just a bedroom from a larger home, for instance) if they’re out of town, or a residential unit that is deemed “seasonal” by the city assessor. 

How many short-term rentals are in Burlington?

The number of short-term rentals in Burlington has fluctuated over the years, but they now account for roughly 1% of the city’s housing stock. 

At their peak in 2019, there were more than 400 of the properties around the city. They dropped to about 250 late last year, but have since added nearly 60 listings, according to a memo from City Planner Meagan Tuttle. 

According to Tuttle’s data, 81% of the city’s short-term rentals are entire units, which — unless they are owner-occupied, accessory dwelling units or exist in a building where the host owns an affordable housing unit — would become illegal if Monday’s ordinance went into effect.

Are there rules governing short-term rentals in Burlington right now?

Short-term rentals in Burlington now account for roughly 1% of the city’s housing stock.

Yes. 

Right now, Burlington’s zoning rules carve out a place for “bed-and-breakfasts,” which must be owner-occupied in order to receive a permit.

Once the hosts of a short-term rental receive a permit to operate as a bed-and-breakfast, they can keep it. That would remain the case even if the City Council were to bar all short-term rentals from operating in the city. But if the council passes regulations that would allow for some whole-unit short-term rentals, the hosts could opt to follow those rules instead and not use their bed-and-breakfast permit.

How would Burlington’s short-term rental ordinance be enforced?

The city’s department of permitting and inspections would be charged with carrying out enforcement of a short-term rental ordinance, just as it is tasked with carrying out other pieces of Burlington’s housing code.

To help them track down noncompliant hosts, the department would contract with a company that tracks online short-term rental listings and cross-references them with the city’s registry. 

The city is already receiving some information about its short-term rental industry for free, through a company called Granicus.

Correction: The original reference for accessory dwelling units used incorrect terminology.

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Burlington reporter Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: jlyons@vtdigger.org

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