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Nantucket roiled by debate over short-term rentals

Proposed rules limiting the use of Airbnb and similar platforms will be put to a vote on Saturday.

A view of Nantucket Harbor including Rebecca Chapa’s restaurant, “The Hungry Minnow," which overlooks Children’s Beach. Chapa is a year-round island resident who rents part of her home to tourists for most of the summer.
A view of Nantucket Harbor including Rebecca Chapa’s restaurant, “The Hungry Minnow," which overlooks Children’s Beach. Chapa is a year-round island resident who rents part of her home to tourists for most of the summer.Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe

High season has arrived in Nantucket, when visitors come for the sun, the cooling evening breeze, and the beauty of an island that is the definition of a postcard-perfect setting.

But this spring, a fierce debate has been roiling this normally placid enclave, pitting the dollars tourists bring against a housing crunch that’s squeezing all but the wealthiest of its residents.

The issue will come to a head Saturday under a big tent next to the elementary school. That’s when hundreds of Nantucketers are set to vote at Annual Town Meeting on a measure that would rein in the island’s soaring short-term rental industry, a business that — depending on whom you talk to — is either the bane or the lifeblood of the 105-square-mile island off the coast of Cape Cod.

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An advocacy group called ACK Now is proposing rules to sharply limit short-term rentals that would block so-called investor-owners — people who don’t live on the island year-round — from renting homes for more than 45 nights a year or for less than one week at a time.

The group said the limitations are necessary to curb an industry that has exploded with the growth of online platforms such as Airbnb, worsening Nantucket’s longtime housing crunch and bringing what ACK Now executive director Tobias Glidden called “a corporate, Disneyland vibe” that overwhelms the island’s rustic charms.

“There’s something not quite right on Nantucket,” Glidden said. “Something needs to be done to protect the neighborhoods, the community, the entire ecosystem we live in here 30 miles out at sea.”

But ACK Now’s campaign is being met with strong resistance from many island business people, who say Nantucket’s ecosystem relies on tourists, most of whom stay in short-term rentals. Making it harder for tourists to find lodging would have all sorts of implications, said Arthur Reade, a Nantucket attorney.

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“Nantucket doesn’t depend on whaling anymore. It depends on tourism,” he said. “Shopkeepers. Inn owners. Galleries. If there was no tourism, they’d all dry up.”

This debate has played out across Massachusetts, from the Berkshires to Boston to Cape Cod. Since the Legislature in 2018 gave cities and towns the right to craft their own short-term rental rules, communities have been wrestling with how best to balance their thirst for tourism against housing shortages.

And maybe nowhere is the discussion more fraught than on this island, where the year-round population of 11,000 can swell fivefold in summer. It is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country and world famous as a getaway destination for the rich and connected. But the island’s economy is still largely dependent on the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come by boat or plane each summer.

Reasonably priced housing ― whether for sale or rent ― has been hard to come by on Nantucket for decades, mostly because wealthy seasonal residents have steadily outbid year-rounders for the limited number of homes. Last year, the median single-family home price on the island topped $2 million, according to real estate firm the Warren Group. Real estate watchers acknowledge the 34 percent increase from 2019 was driven in part by the pandemic, but prices have been climbing for years.

At the same time, more homes are being used as vacation properties at least part of the time, rented to tourists looking for alternatives to Nantucket’s handful of expensive hotels and inns. More than one-sixth of the island’s 12,000 housing units are registered for use as short-term rentals, and with rates that can top $1,000 a night for a small cottage during the peak of summer, some landlords have decided it’s more profitable to rent by the week to visitors than year-round to locals. And between tight zoning laws and the sky-high cost of labor and lumber out at sea, new construction is scarce.

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“Price appreciation has been just astronomical,” said Tucker Holland, the town’s housing director. “And there’s no question that we are losing what has historically been year-round housing inventory, to either investors or short-term ownership.”

Yet even year-rounders rely on income from short-term rentals. Just ask Rebecca Chapa.

She came to Nantucket from New York City as a child and fell hard for it. Living there had long been her “dream,” Chapa said, so when she and her husband had a chance to buy a modest house about a decade ago, they jumped in. Now they live on-island year-round, running a snack shop in the summers and enjoying the quiet, austere winters.

Rebecca Chapa at her Nantucket restaurant, “The Hungry Minnow.”
Rebecca Chapa at her Nantucket restaurant, “The Hungry Minnow.” Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe

It works, Chapa said, only because they spend most of the summer renting out the bulk of their house, retreating to a one-bedroom apartment in the basement while guests stay in the three-bedroom main home. This year, she said, it’s booked for 70 nights, far more than the 45-night cap the proposed rules would allow. The proceeds cover the mortgage.

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“That would just destroy our business model, which is really our living model,” Chapa said. “We don’t do this as a business. We do this to survive here.”

Glidden and other supporters of the rules say they understand those concerns, and plan to amend the proposal at Town Meeting to exempt year-round residents from many of the restrictions. But Chapa, like other critics, remains skeptical. They say an outdoor town meeting — with 112 items on the agenda — is no place to negotiate such a nuanced issue.

Some residents are trying to stay out of the fray. They include Matt Fee, a lifelong islander and member of the town’s select board.

Fee said he has friends on both sides of the debate. As the owner of a decades-old sandwich shop, Something Natural, he knows the value of tourists who stream through Nantucket each summer, as well as the plight of working islanders who struggle to pay rent. Fee said he’s noticed fewer young people applying for jobs at his shop because the days when a group of college students could afford to rent a house for the summer are vanishing. Even his young employees whose parents own homes on the island tell him they’ll need a place to stay for a few weeks in August, because their house is being rented to tourists.

Fee voted with the rest of the select board last month to study the issue further, no matter what happens Saturday. He wonders whether the matter is too complex to hash out in a civil fashion at a townwide gathering.

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“It’s going to be really difficult,” Fee said. “If everyone comes out of that tent alive, it’ll be a good thing.”


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.