Perhaps you’ve stayed in such a place. Maybe you live beside one. An apartment or a house accessed by lockbox or passcode at any time of day or night. Its interior, by now, familiar to many: spare, nondescript and normally heavy on Ikea furnishings. There might be a laminated card with the Wi-Fi code on the fridge, or a rundown of local bars and restaurants on the kitchen table.

Short-term rentals like this one, at a 2021 open house at the Synagogue Apartments in Auburn, will be the focus of a new legislative commission that has been tasked with identifying the extent to which the trend exacerbates Maine’s housing crisis. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

This is what the full-time short-term rental looks like, a phenomenon that for the past decade has transformed the way we travel and live for days, weeks, even months at a time. People have gone from idly leasing out their homes to vacationers to acquiring property for the sole purpose of renting it out. It’s a very big, very lucrative business for the operators – particularly in a state as attractive to visitors as Maine.

According to one study, Airbnb alone is responsible for as much as 20 percent of the average yearly increase in rent in the U.S. That short-term rentals tie up housing stock and distort the wider market is in no doubt. Not a moment too soon, a new legislative commission has been tasked with identifying the extent to which the trend exacerbates the housing crisis here in Maine.

The 15-member commission is reassuringly varied, featuring politicians from both chambers, the head of Maine’s housing authority and a governor appointee, as well as representatives of homeowners, municipal governments, agricultural interests, developers and affordable housing and civil rights groups.

A variety of rules and restrictions already in place across the state will be subject to review. South Portland’s 2019 crackdown led to a host of unregistered operators “playing chicken with the city,” in the mayor’s words. Falmouth’s ordinance, introduced last year, drew criticism from rental owners. A Freeport councilor declared his town’s rules “too restrictive.” Rockland has been periodically reviewing a waiting list for a limited number of slots.

The fragmented response brings its own problems. Where limits are applied in some communities and not in others nearby, those others nearby start feeling it. The enforcement of a cap on non-owner-occupied rentals in Bar Harbor, for example, has led to spillover into neighboring towns, according to recent reporting, spurring these communities to consider caps of their own.

The commission is expected to submit its report by the beginning of November. At or around that time, not one but two referendum questions seeking greater limits on short-term rentals will be on the ballot in Portland. The first, proposed by a group of homeowners, would ban corporate and non-local registration of short-term rentals, ban the eviction of existing tenants for short-term rentals and increase fines. The second, put forward by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, would restrict short-term renting to units that are owner- or tenant-occupied.

The palatability of this arrangement in these charged times has made it as far as Airbnb listings. “This is a lived-in unit,” reads the description of one two-bedroom apartment currently available on Munjoy Hill for $395 a night, “which means you can stay without contributing to Portland’s housing crunch (I go camping!).”

If only the market could keep itself in check. A statewide examination, conducted properly, should lead to informed statewide regulation, consistently enforced, and bring needed clarity to the many pockets of Maine grappling with this tension.

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