DEPOE BAY, Ore. — Postcards with big promises began showing up in mailboxes in Oregon coastal communities in 2019: “Rent your home short term, use it when you want to, guaranteed $5,000 more monthly income than you’re earning with your current property management firm,” recalled Monica Kirk, a retiree.

Kirk’s neighborhood began to transform almost immediately.

Internet-based service firms such as Airbnb, Vacasa and VRBO had been bumping up against short-term rental caps in nearby towns. So they began aggressively soliciting property owners in quieter, unincorporated seaside neighborhoods like Kirk’s, where there were fewer restrictions on rentals. Over the next year, according to a public records request Kirk filed, the number of licensed short-term rentals in unincorporated neighborhoods in Lincoln County, Oregon, grew from 385 to 601.

“During most of the year, not just the season, there were more renters than there were full-time residents,” Kirk said.

Taking all those homes out of the potential long-term rental stock made it that much more challenging for working people to afford homes in the county, a tourist community on the Central Oregon coast. The area, like all popular vacation destinations, needs affordable housing for the workers who keep it humming.

Kirk and her neighbors began gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that, over the next five years, will do away entirely with short-term rentals in unincorporated communities in the county. Its successful passage in November was one of the few bans to be approved in a wave of efforts aimed at addressing the effects of short-term rentals on affordable housing in the tourism communities of the West.

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. Suddenly people could live, work and recreate in the vacation communities of the West.


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. When those homes enter the short-term vacation rental pool, they’re no longer available to the local workforce.

There are few statewide efforts to restrict short-term rentals — Idaho even prohibits local governments from enacting bans — but some cities and counties have restricted vacation rentals. In Washington, Chelan County leaders recently imposed new constraints on the number of homes in unincorporated areas that may be rented short-term; Seattle and Leavenworth have each enacted their own restrictions.

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.

Vacasa, which is based in Portland, went public in early December on the promise of its technology to manage properties, and the understanding that vacation rentals for large groups or families are an untapped market. Jamie Cohen, Vacasa’s chief financial officer, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that at least a fifth of people staying in vacation rentals did so for the first time during the pandemic.

In Colorado, residents of eight mountain towns have passed taxes on short-term rentals, the proceeds of which are aimed at addressing housing shortages. Colorado state Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat, has proposed legislation that would tax many short-term rentals at the lodging property rate, which hotels pay, for each day the property is rented more than 30 days a year.

His bill emerged in response to developers who began converting ski-town hotels into short-term condominium rentals with individual owners. That meant the new rentals qualified for lower residential property tax rates, instead of the lodging rate. In the ski town of Steamboat Springs, the move took $1.5 million out of the local school budget, Hansen said.


“If we don’t have a stable property tax base, we then start to create a huge, additional burden on the state budget,” Hansen said. “And we have a lot of constraints on our state budget.”

Real estate agents, property management companies and individual property owners oppose the legislation. They would rather see other options used, including restricting short-term rentals to certain zones of communities, said Julia Koster, executive director of the Summit Alliance of Vacation Rental Managers, which represents the owners and managers of about 7,000 short-term rental units in and around ski towns.

In general, the vacation rental industry fights efforts to enact short-term moratoriums or bans. The was the case for the community-led ballot measure in coastal Oregon, said Kirk. Two separate political action committees lined up against it; they were backed mostly by real estate and property management interests that easily outspent the $35,000 locals raised to pass the measure.

Meredith Lodging, a large local vacation property management firm in Oregon, gave $200,000 to Save Lincoln County Jobs, a PAC set up explicitly to fight the measure. The VIA Oregon Coalition, a separate political action committee established to support short-term rental policies, took in $28,500 from the Oregon Realtors and one of its political action committees. Another $10,000 to fight the measure came from Vacasa.

“We are in favor of fair and equitable regulations that preserve our homeowners’ ability to operate their vacation rental and earn income they rely on, while also protecting the interests of full-time residents,” Sarah Tatone, the head of communications at Vacasa, said in an emailed statement. “It’s about finding a balance to regulate short-term rentals fairly, without limiting the potential to spur growth or support local businesses and the economy.”

Yet few popular tourist communities in the West have enough affordable options for the staff needed to run a vacation destination in peak season. In Montana, people who can’t afford the rent in some tourist towns have been camping, encroaching on grizzly territory. The housing shortage has led 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 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 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.”

Oscilowski sits on the sustainable tourism management committee of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. She supported a moratorium on new short-term rentals, if only to slow the transition. The measure was narrowly defeated in October.

Still, she’s heartened that the city is considering some changes.

“Anyone who’s been in our community for over 10 years has seen the change, and also feels the frustration and hardship of it,” Oscilowski said. “It’s an undeniable issue.”