23-year-old Victoria Compton has been apartment hunting for months. Her landlords sold their house, and she has to find a new place to live soon. The lifelong Sitkan has a steady job with SEARHC, and she’s not even looking for her dream home, just a place to call her own.
“At this point, a roof over our head that we can afford,” she says. “A dishwasher would be nice, but we’ll take what we can get. And at this point, if it will take us and the dogs, that’s all that matters to us.”
Compton has two dogs– Mabel and Molly Bear. Finding a dog-friendly apartment in Sitka is particularly challenging.
“It’s just really hard,” she says. “Overall, the community is usually like, pretty resourceful, and helpful. But when it comes to housing, it’s definitely a ‘You’re on your own,’ kind of deal.”
Compton has seen some seasonal or short-term rentals advertised on Facebook, and a few people have reached out to offer her temporary housing. But she doesn’t see that as an option unless things get really desperate. She’s looking for a long-term solution.
“There’s so many homes that are seasonal,” she says. “I know that is something that other people are trying to get the city to look into and see how problematic seasonal rentals can be. And it’s not like you want to, you know, attack the people who do seasonal rentals, but highlight how much of a problem it is when it comes to the benefits of the community.”
According to city code, a short-term rental is any property rented for 14 consecutive days or less. Anything from a stand-alone house to mother-in-law apartments or a single room in someone’s home can qualify as a short-term rental in Sitka. They’ve gained popularity over the last decade as online rental marketplaces like Airbnb and VRBO have exploded.
City policies around them vary. In a few residential areas, they’re not allowed at all. In others, homeowners must seek planning commission approval through a conditional permit process. Just like hotels, they’re required to pay bed taxes to the city. And in commercial and downtown districts, they don’t need a permit, which means the city has no good way of tracking exactly how many there are.
Sitka has tried to curb the short-term rental market before. In 2005, three years before Airbnb was founded, the Sitka Assembly issued a moratorium on new short-term rental permits in residential zones, in an effort to ‘protect the availability of affordable housing in Sitka.’ It was lifted in 2007. And in the last three years, the number of known active short-term rentals has more than doubled, from 22 in 2017 to 53 in 2020.
Tim Riley owns several short-term and long-term rentals in Sitka. The biggest pro? The return is greater on a short-term rental, and despite the narrative about wild Airbnb parties, Riley says short-term rentals see less wear-and-tear, and any damage is usually covered with the credit card on file.
“Down South we hear about these, you know, somebody rented a house on Airbnb and 700 kids came and had a party. And they’ve made movies about it, the house ends up in flames and stuff, there’s a fleet of police cars and stuff,” Riley laughs. “We don’t see that too often up here.”
On the other-hand, with a long-term rental, the landlord doesn’t have to worry about fluctuations in the tourism economy.
“When you sign a lease for a year with somebody, or when you sign a lease with a Coast Guard for three years, that’s a guaranteed income stream for three years, you don’t have to worry about it,” Riley says. “All you have to do is make sure they leave the lights on and keep the heat going.”
Sitka’s rainforest environment is rough on housing, and property is expensive to maintain.
“I don’t want to put in gold plated toilets. But at the same time, if I’m going to go to all the trouble to rehab one of my units, and pour that kind of money into them, I need to charge more rent,” he says. “And sometimes the rent that I need to charge is more than people are willing to pay on a long-term basis, but I can get it on a short-term basis.”
Riley also says he’s had such high turnover in an apartment building he co-owns that they’re considering converting a couple of them into short-term rentals.
And that checks out with recent trends. While short-term rentals have doubled in Sitka, it’s still not clear how much that increase has affected the long-term rental market. In fact, in the last year, more long-term rentals have gone vacant. According to a report issued in March by the Department of Labor, the amount of vacant rentals in Sitka has increased to around 13.8 percent, the second highest rental vacancy rate in the state. But more vacancy does not equal more accessibility. When the average wage is factored in, rent in Sitka is considered the least affordable of any area in the state.
Other cities that have experienced a surge in short-term rentals have developed stronger regulations in response. Some cities limit the amount of permits per host, and others require that a short-term rental must be the host’s primary residence.
At a recent Sitka Planning Commission meeting (5-5-21), around a dozen residents called for the commission to follow suit. Commissioner Katie Riley, who is also the daughter of Tim Riley, voiced support for two possible policy changes– requiring short-term rentals be the primary residence of the host, and voiding the permits when the property is sold.
“I don’t want to get to a situation where, you know, we have too many, and it’s like, oh, my gosh, what happened? I’d rather have a discussion about how to sensibly regulate these in a way that, you know, provides flexibility, but also addresses the concerns that people have raised,” she said. “Before we get to a point where Sitka is not a secret anymore.”
While the Planning Commission didn’t take any action that night, it did direct the Planning Department to develop a survey seeking community feedback on short-term rentals. Victoria Compton hopes the city will make some changes to its policies to keep renters from being pushed out. Just like the many visitors who rent Airbnbs to experience the mountains, ocean and fresh air, she loves everything about living in Sitka.
“I still have close family friends who I consider family that are here. And a lot of people I know are here and so many connections and memories. And then my grandparents are buried here,” she says. “Everything’s just here.”
And soon she hopes to find a home here too.
Editor’s Note: After our interview with Victoria Compton, she found a pet-friendly rental. Her search took more than three months. Listen to our full interview with Compton here. Throughout April and May, KCAW News will be bringing you stories about affordable housing solutions every Friday as part of our “Building Solutions” series. To find photos and more in-depth reporting, visit kcaw.org/buildingsolutions.
Last week the Planning Department published a survey seeking community feedback on short-term rentals in Sitka. The survey closes on May 26. To participate in the survey click here.