On Sept. 12, the Rockland City Council was set to give their first vote on a proposal to slowly phase out non-owner-occupied short-term rentals from residential areas in Rockland. In the end, after an amazing turn-out (I counted 75 people on the Zoom call at one point), the majority of councilors voted to postpone it “indefinitely,” killing the proposal – for now at least.

Many people (mostly Realtors and non-occupied short-term rental property investors) had acted stunned and aggrieved about this proposed phase-out, and asked for more time, more community conversations, more city-sponsored workshops. Yes, more community conversations are a good idea, but we also need action.

City government in Rockland has been discussing housing issues for years – conducting housing workshops and housing committees – but often has been stalled out on taking action. Part of why it is so hard for municipalities to take action about gentrification and the housing crisis is due to the ruthless capitalist system in general which treats housing as a commodity, but also because on the municipal Maine level, municipalities are very limited in what they can do. One of the few things a municipality can do to intervene in the housing crisis is to limit short-term rentals.

Short-term rentals are big business. In 2021, property owners in Maine made more than $180 million via Airbnb alone, not counting other short-term rental sites. Who is profiting most from non-owner-occupied short-term rentals in Rockland?

The December 2021 list of Airbnb permits in Rockland from the code office, to the best of my ability to decipher it, shows 36 names who have non-owner occupied STRs in Rockland. A full 67% of the property investors who run non-owner-occupied STRs do not live full-time in Rockland. A full 53% of Rockland’s non-owner occupied STRs are owned by out-of-state real estate investors. These investors live in Indiana, Connecticut, Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, Colorado, Kentucky, Washington, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, etc. but are keeping a profitable piece of Rockland in their investment portfolio, all while removing these homes from the year-round housing options.

Many of these property owners were fierce in their opposition to the proposal, but would it really cause them such agony to rent their investment property out year-round (ideally at an affordable, friendly price since the renters are, after all, paying for the investor’s equity) or, to sell now while prices are wildly high?

When you get down to the core of it, the claim that having non-owner-occupied short-term investment properties in residential areas is more important than freeing these houses up to provide more year-round roofs over people’s heads is just plain cruel.

Locals are living in cars, motels, or crunched in with friends and family, sometimes forced to stay in abusive situations, seeking advice on local Facebook groups for housing options, but, barring that, about how they can stop the pipes from freezing on a camper in a Maine winter. The housing availability crisis (not even the affordability crisis) is so bad that the local homeless coalition has been forced to resort to handing out tents. No, the short-term rental proposal was not going to magically solve the housing crisis, but if it ended up providing even ten more year-round homes, would that not be worth it?

More than 88% of those who spoke against the proposal on Sept. 12 make their money in real estate or themselves own non-owner-occupied short-term rentals. Not everyone who spoke against it mentioned they profit from owning non-owner-occupied short-term rentals; I found their info by cross-referencing Rockland’s short-term rental permits. About an equal number of people spoke in favor of the proposal as against, and far more of those who voiced support were Rockland residents.

So, what is next? If politicians keep failing to make strong policy, it might be up to citizens to bring forward a set of well-planned housing policies for a citizens’ vote. Unfortunately, housing initiatives sometimes fail with voters as well.

At times, the proposed policies are flawed, but more frequently, the moneyed forces that rise up against humane housing policies are too powerful. In 2015, Airbnb flooded San Francisco with an $8 million propaganda campaign to stop voters from enacting restrictions on short-term rentals. Airbnb won. Even in little tiny, lovely Rockland, as soon as Airbnb got a whiff of this proposal, they emailed their Airbnb hosts in Rockland and urged them to get the Rockland City Council to vote it down.

Becca Shaw Glaser