Short-term rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO have led to an increase in short-term rentals across the country in the last decade. In Sitka, you must have a conditional use permit for a short-term rental in a residential zone- the Planning Commission approves these. But the assembly is considering a cap on new permits from April of 2022 to April of 2023.

The Sitka Assembly is considering capping the number of short-term rentals in Sitka, at least temporarily. When it met on March 8, it greenlit a moratorium on conditional use permits for short-term rentals for one year. But it won’t be enacted until it comes before the Assembly for a second reading. 

Ben Kinzer moved to Sitka during the pandemic as an Americorps member with his partner, and in the last year and a half he said they’d moved six times, because they couldn’t find permanent housing.

“And this has just been so stressful,” Kinzer said. “There were many times where we were worried and preparing to be possibly homeless in a few months or living out of our car, which I didn’t expect.”

“Especially because we both have jobs, and we can pay to rent places,” he continued. “We just can’t find anywhere to rent.”

Kinzer told the assembly he thought the moratorium was a step in the right direction to tackling Sitka’s housing woes.

If enacted, the moratorium on new permits for short-term rentals in residential zones would extend from April of 2022 to April of 2023. [According to city code, a short-term rental is any property rented for fewer than 14 consecutive days] Those who already have conditional use permits for short-term rentals would not be affected. Sponsors say it’s only a first step toward protecting the availability of affordable housing in Sitka, where the number of legal short-term rentals has jumped in recent years. 

Read the full ordinance here

But Laurie Booyse, who leads Visit Sitka, said the moratorium was bypassing the real issue.

“I think short-term rentals are the easy, sexy thing to focus on. But I think that there are much bigger issues than that,” Booyse said. “I think the lack of affordable housing is the crux of the problem. And the lack of the physical buildings in this community is a part of the problem.”

“There’s no silver bullets for this, but there’s some common sense things we can do to protect citizens,” said assembly member Kevin Mosher, who sponsored the ordinance with Kevin Knox.

“It’s like you’re in a boat with a hole in it,” Mosher continued. “All this moratorium does is plug the hole so that we can start bailing out the water. And bailing out the water are possible ordinances, policy changes, et cetera, that we do to help address this housing issue.” 

But Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz had several concerns about the ordinance– it wouldn’t stop new short-term rentals from cropping up in commercial zones, and he thought it set a bad precedent to bring the ordinance before the assembly without the planning commission reviewing it first. And he didn’t think the assembly had the data to support it.

“I refuse to make policy off of no data,” Eisenbeisz said. “I think it’s bad enough when we make policy off of bad data, skewed data, flawed data, but to make a policy based off of no data, I believe, is absolutely horrible.”

Assembly member Rebecca Himschoot said she would vote yes, at least on first reading. She hoped it could give the assembly time to investigate Sitka’s housing issues and dig up recent data–  an effort she said had been stymied by the pandemic.

“I’m not sure that a moratorium is needed to do all of these things,” she said. “But if it gives us a cooling off period and a chance to really investigate and come back with changes that happen in that year, that work for Sitka, then I’m going to support [it].”

Ultimately the assembly voted 5-1 in favor of the ordinance with Mayor Eisenbeisz opposed. It will likely come before the assembly for a second reading at its next regular meeting. 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on 3-10-22 at 12:54 p.m. to include the city’s definition of “short-term rental.”