Meghan Casey fell in love with Peaks Island years ago when she came to visit with a friend after graduating from college. She liked the island so much she ended up staying for eight years before she and her husband married and moved to the mainland.

They continued to visit and in 2007 bought land and built a small house. The couple plans to retire there soon and next summer their daughter will get married on the island. Casey, a teacher at Yarmouth High School who has summers off, spends about three weeks to a month at the house each year.

When she and her family aren’t there, they rent the house for a week at a time in the summer, and for longer periods in the winter.

Meghan Casey and Chuck Parker at the house they’ve owned for several years on Peaks Island. They’re worried about the impact of the short-term rental proposal, which would extend a cap on non-owner-occupied short-term rentals currently in place on the mainland to the islands. Casey worries the referendum, if it passes, will make owning a home on the island impossible for people like her family who rely on the short-term rental income to pay the home’s taxes and mortgage. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

She’s worried, though, that the ability to rent the house, and the income that comes with it and allows them to keep it, could come to an end under a proposal Portland voters will consider this fall to further restrict the number and types of short-term rentals in the city.

“We’re not wealthy people and we’re not in the income bracket where we could afford to buy a house on Peaks Island or any of the other islands,” said Casey, 58. “We rent it by the week in the summer to help with taxes and to help with the mortgage and we also rent it by the month in the winter, but the summer rentals are really what make it possible.”

The Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Livable Portland campaign is behind the referendum that city voters will consider Nov. 8.


The proposal would prohibit short-term rentals in houses and apartments that are not the primary residence of the owner or tenant, but it would allow them in a two-unit building where the owner lives in the other apartment.

It also would lower the cap on non-owner-occupied short-term rentals – meaning duplexes where the owner lives in one unit – from 400 on the mainland to 250 – or to 1 percent of all rental units citywide, including on the islands.

The DSA says the proposal is aimed at increasing affordable housing across the city, including on the islands, and they’re expecting the proposal will help open up more units for rent long term.

“I know there are people who would like to rent on Peaks and it’s hard because most of the market is short-term rentals,” said Wes Pelletier, chair of the DSA’s Livable Portland campaign. “That should be a year-round community and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

Of the 683 short-term rental registrations filed with the city, 108, or about 16 percent, are located on islands. The actual number of registered short-term rental units in the city – 810 – is slightly higher since registrants may have multiple units per registration.

People get off the ferry at Peaks Island on Tuesday. Voters will consider a referendum this November that seeks to restrict short-term rentals in Portland and the islands. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The six islands in the city – Peaks Island, Great Diamond Island, Cushing Island, Little Diamond Island, House Island and Cliff Island – are subject to some short-term rental regulations now, like the need to annually register. But the cap on non-owner occupied rentals and a mainland requirement that single-family homes be either owner-occupied or tenant-occupied in order to be rented short term don’t apply. That would change under the DSA’s proposal.


On Peaks Island, the largest and most populated island in the city, some residents and homeowners are worried about outsized impacts of the proposal on the islands. They say it doesn’t take into account that many island homes are seasonal and not suited to long-term rentals.

They worry the ordinance would alter the culture of the island and lead to middle-class and longtime homeowners being forced out. And they say those aspects of the proposal weren’t well thought out, even if there is a citywide need for more affordable housing.

“I can fully understand (further restrictions on short-term rentals) if it’s an area on the mainland in Portland where you live in a neighborhood and it’s traditionally been full-time year-round people,” said Ralph Ashmore, a real estate agent who also manages short-term rentals and has lived on the island for nearly 40 years. “But the culture of the island for over 100 years has supported and welcomed vacationers and our economy is dependent on that.”


Marisa MacIsaac, a lifelong islander, has a seasonal two-bedroom cottage that she rents mostly to family members during the summer months. MacIsaac, who also owns Peaks Island Tours, said the referendum would be “catastrophic” and she worries about how the change would impact families like hers. “Most of the houses have been in the same family for generations and they can’t afford to keep (them) without being able to rent,” said MacIsaac, 42.

Some seasonal homes lack year-round water because they are connected only to shallow water lines that get shut off by the city water district during the winter months because they would freeze. MacIsaac said she only has water six months of the year at her cottage, and there are many such seasonal properties where the infrastructure isn’t in place for year-round living.


She said the island – like the rest of the city – is in need of more affordable housing, but she doesn’t think the referendum is the best way to address that.

“What happens when a house goes on the market, it goes for $1 million cash, and those people are not interested in making it accessible,” MacIsaac said. “And then my friends and family can’t come. I have lots of cousins that would love to buy out here. They’re all ready to buy a house, but not at $1 million.”

Ashmore, the real estate agent, agrees that if the referendum passes, generational homes on the island would likely be sold to wealthy investors. “Those that own second homes now most likely couldn’t afford them and for those who could afford them it would be a clientele that wouldn’t need to rent them,” Ashmore said. “They might have a second, third or fourth home.”

He worries about the impact on the broader island community, including those who make their livings cleaning and making repairs on short-term rentals. “This has been our culture for years and years,” Ashmore said. “It’s already expensive to live on the island and the families that do it and have their kids in our school, they do it because we enjoy a certain quality of life and part of that is that we accept the economy and culture of having this influx of summer people.”


But not everyone thinks the proposal would be a disaster. Peter McLaughlin, a member of the Peaks Island Council who works as a musician and arts administrator at the nonprofit SPACE on the mainland, supports the referendum and thinks it will help solve the city’s affordable housing crisis, both on and off the island.


“The island is becoming increasingly unlivable,” said McLaughlin, who rents from a roommate who owns the house they live in. “Just like you hear in town, there are less rentals and they’re less affordable than they used to be. There’s a year-round way of life on the island being threatened. There are a lot of factors, but certainly the slow churn of affordable rentals and properties into vacation homes and investment properties is a major factor.”

He worries about the impact to the island economy are overblown. “I think the majority of the people on the island during business hours all summer long are day-trippers, and I think year-round residents keep a lot of the businesses running,” said McLaughlin, 34. “So that doesn’t line up to me. I don’t see how this ordinance would lead to less people on the island and less people patronizing businesses.”

Peter McLaughlin, a member of the Peaks Island Council, supports the referendum to restrict short-term rentals on Peaks, saying it will help address the shortage of affordable housing. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Timmi Sellers, a retired nurse who moved to the island nine years ago, is a member of the Peaks council’s affordable housing and zoning committee. She agrees there needs to be more restrictions on short-term rentals and believes that the proposal will help create more long-term housing and curb short-term rentals that can at times be disruptive to residents.

While some owners who rent out their properties short term also offer relatively inexpensive winter rentals, Sellers said finding something to rent year-round can be extremely difficult. “There are so few year-round rentals on the island, it’s crazy,” said Sellers, 73. “So I do think I will vote for it. I think we need to limit it, and you can still do 30-day rentals, which means people if they’re here for 30 days might be more respectful, and I think it will help with the housing stock.”


At the same time, McLaughlin said he also sees “unique issues” affecting the islands in the way the ordinance is written, particularly for seasonal homes that don’t have year-round water and aren’t winterized.


“I’m hopeful there may be a solution for that in the implementation,” McLaughlin said. “If not, I think that’s something the Peaks council would likely look into and see what needs to be done by the City Council to make sure that group of properties are impacted fairly and dealt with appropriately.”

The referendum comes as Portland and the surrounding area are in the midst of a housing crisis with a lack of affordable housing and rising rents forcing many people out of the area or into homelessness. Betsey Remage-Healey, president of Home Start, a nonprofit that seeks to create and preserve affordable year-round housing on Peaks Island, said the island is no different.

But she said there’s also a different dynamic on the island, which for years has served as both a year-round residence for some people and a seasonal summer residence for others.

“My first concern is that there needs to be clarification as to where seasonal properties fit in,” said Remage-Healey, who rents out her year-round residence on the island for part of the summer and spoke from a family vacation spot in New Hampshire.

“That’s very specific to the island. You don’t have that in the rest of Portland and I would be very concerned if suddenly all seasonal houses can’t be rented short term. No one is going to live in a seasonal house year-round. … If that can be clarified and taken into consideration then my hope would be that whatever comes of it can increase the supply of year-round affordable housing because that’s what we need.”

Pelletier, of the DSA campaign, acknowledged there are seasonal homes on the islands and said they could still be rented on a monthly basis under the proposal, or winterized and converted to long-term rentals.


He also said there are many winterized homes being used as short-term rentals. “That’s our primary concern,” he said. “We want to make sure people can rent and live on Peaks Island without those properties being bought up for Airbnbs.”

Part of the motive for people to buy homes on Peaks Island is to use them for short-term rentals, Pelletier said, and he sees that changing if the referendum passes. “If people own a house they don’t reside in most of the time or have units they don’t reside in, I think they will turn them into long-term rentals,” Pelletier said. “If you have property you aren’t using then … we will see that return to renters.”

Casey, the teacher who operates a short-term rental, disagrees. “The people who are going to buy these houses aren’t people who need or will provide affordable housing,” she said. “It’s going to be people who can buy a half-million to $1 million house.”

As chair of Yarmouth’s Affordable Housing Committee, she said she isn’t opposed to regulations on short-term rentals, but she thinks there should be different considerations on the islands.

If the referendum passes, she said she and her husband will probably sell either their mainland house or the island home.

“But the larger issue is the change to the community and culture on the islands,” Casey said. “There are families like ours that are middle income that have, through luck or through careful watching of the real estate market, been able to purchase something at some point in the past that wasn’t too expensive and made it work. … Our family feels connected deeply to the island. Other families feel connected through the rentals. And there are a lot of families like mine who have done that.”

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