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On Nantucket, another round in long-running debate over short-term rentals

A measure going before the Town Meeting this weekend would sharply restrict short-term rentals on the housing-starved island, and some worry it will force them to sell their family homes

Town Meeting members in Nantucket are set this weekend to vote on new rules that would sharply curtail short-term rentals on the island, which is grappling with a massive shortage of year-round housing that workers and non-wealthy residents can afford.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Alison Taylor has always had a place in Nantucket. Her father and grandfather built it out of an old boathouse in Madaket in 1969. And while the 62-year-old lives in Middleborough now, she and her brothers sneak in a few vacations there when they can, remembering times gone by.

Now Taylor’s worried it could be lost forever.

That’s because of a proposal at Saturday’s Nantucket Town Meeting which would place sharp restrictions on short-term rentals on the island, limiting them to occupied homes where the owner actually lives at least six months of the year. Taylor doesn’t.

The high cost of living on the island forced her and her brothers to the mainland decades ago, and they rent the house they call “Topside” — because its kitchen and living room are upstairs and bedrooms down below — to tourists each summer. That’s how they afford to keep it. But they all sneak in a few vacations a year too, a taste of the unique place where they grew up. If the new rules are approved, she worries they may be forced to sell.

“I always knew in the back of my mind that we had Topside, even if it’s only for a week,” said Taylor. “That’s my home.”

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Home, and who can afford to live on Nantucket, is at the heart of a long-boiling debate over short-term rentals there. The measure to be voted on on Saturday would limit short-term rentals in residential districts to owner-occupied houses only. For commercial properties, rentals must be used for long-term residential use more than short-term rental use.

It’s an effort to encourage more year-round rentals to Nantucket residents, rather than short-term rentals aimed at tourists, said Emily Kilvert, herself a year-round resident for 25 years. She said she decided to sponsor the bill because there are no zoning bylaws in place – putting homeowners of short-term rentals in legal jeopardy by not having it as an allowed use on the books.

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“There’s a pathway for everybody to continue to do their short-term rentals,” said Kilvert, who owns a commercial building with two rentals to year-round residents. “This article would protect the wonderful residential character of our neighborhoods.”

It’s the third year in a row such a measure has come up for a vote. ACK•Now, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the “community and quality of life” of Nantucket, put forth articles in 2021 and 2022, which would have placed restrictions on short-term rentals owned by non-residents. Those failed to pass. ACK•Now did not respond to requests for comment on this year’s version.

Rebecca Chapa, photographed in 2021, during an earlier debate over short-term rentals on Nantucket.Julia Cumes

Some are ready for the debate to reach a resolution.

”It’s extremely frustrating to have to deal with this every single year,” said Rebecca Chapa, owner of the Hungry Minnow snack shop and a homeowner who rents out a portion of her house every year to help pay the mortgage.

If the measure passes, Chapa believes it will give the impression to visitors that “Nantucket is closed for business.” With no short-term rentals, there will be nowhere to stay, Chapa said. With not enough places for people to stay, Chapa worries that the tourism business will tank, taking her business with it.

The Nantucket housing market is what the census calls a resort market — a vacation destination that is in demand as a place to live and or visit seasonally, said Rod Motamedi, assistant director of economic and policy research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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The Alliance to Protect Nantucket’s Economy, a coalition of island businesses, residents, organizations, and professional groups, paid Motamedi to study the island’s housing stock and the impact short-term rentals have on Nantucket’s economy. He found that almost two-thirds of all the homes on the island are second homes used seasonally. Put another way, there are three times as many houses on the island as there are year-round households.

Meanwhile, Nantucket has few hotels, just 840 hotel rooms in total. That’s enough to house about 2,700 visitors per night, a fraction of the 9,100 that can be housed in the island’s short-term rental stock.

“No one’s saying [short-term rentals] have no impact on the island,” said Motamedi. “They are a housing use. They obviously enable greater tourism. Many folks who live on Nantucket use short-term rentals to afford their mortgage or offset some of their housing costs. … But with more visitations comes more noise and traffic and so on – those are costs in their own way.”

A resolution may be drawing closer. Last year town members also voted to enact a short-term rental workgroup to identify new bylaws or zoning to clarify where short-term rentals could be. That group, which launched in June 2022, is still meeting.

And all of it was warped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which turbocharged Nantucket’s housing market while also driving some of the best years for short-term rental operators, said Ryan Castle, CEO of the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors. With reports of a recession on the horizon, the industry may enter some slow years ahead.

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“I think everyone needs to take a breath, step back, and see where this economy takes us,” Castle said.

But for people such as Taylor, who use the money from renting long-held homes to afford their piece of the much-loved island, the vote Saturday is an urgent matter. Taylor herself can’t vote — “Topside” is not her primary residence — but she knows what she’d say to those who can.

“I would tell them to look around, look at their friends, look at their neighbors,” she said. “They know their parents and their grandparents. Think about that before they vote because they could be pulling the land right out from under their feet.”

Nantucket Town Meeting this weekend will vote on another proposal to limit short-term rentals on the island.Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe