(KCAW/Berett Wilber)

Last month, the Sitka Assembly killed a moratorium that would have capped new short term rental permits for one year. But while most assembly members didn’t like the idea of the moratorium, they did want to do something, and with some urgency. This week, at 7 p.m. on April 18, they’re holding a town hall to hear Sitkans ideas for what to do, if anything, about a growth in short-term rentals that some believe is having a negative effect on Sitka’s housing market.

Short-term rentals are any property rented for 14 days or fewer– and the city requires permits for STRs in residential zones. 

Sitka saw a steady increase in those permit applications from 2017 to 2019. They dipped dramatically during the height of the COVID pandemic, but planning commission member Wendy Alderson says they’re on the rise again. Eight have been approved so far this year.

“Across the West, really, there’s a been a big increase in the visitor industry and independent travelers, and into destination areas. And Sitka is kind of a destination area. And we struggle with housing already,” Alderson says.

She’s particularly concerned about investment firms or corporations buying up standalone homes to use as vacation rentals, a trend happening across the country. And she says right now there isn’t much criteria for conditional use permits that would prevent that. 

“This is very different, in my opinion, than somebody who wants to rent their mother-in-law apartment out when their family is not here to make a few bucks to help pay their mortgage,” Alderson says. “I think by taking a look at things before we start losing too many of our single family stand-alone homes to investment firms, that we’ll have a better idea of what we want the short-term rental market here in Sitka to look like.”

On March 22, the Sitka Assembly rejected a one-year moratorium on new short-term rental permits. Sponsors Kevin Knox and Kevin Mosher hoped that if they temporarily stopped granting new permits, it would give the city time to create new policy.

“And the discussion at the table, while it wasn’t in favor of the moratorium, was greatly in favor of looking for solutions,” Knox says. “Even those that came to oppose the moratorium, there was a recognition that we have a housing crisis, and that the rapid increase in short-term rentals may be contributing to that.” 

Alderson and Knox hope to get a big turnout at the town hall on April 18, which will be pretty informal. No podium, no “public comment” period – they just want to make a space for Sitkans to share their ideas, with the hope of bringing some of those ideas to the assembly table. 

“The main thing that we’re looking for from this town hall is to put ideas down, and put them on the table, and start discussing ‘What does this community want to see at this point?'” Knox says. “You know, how drastic do we feel like this problem is? And is this a piece of the solution that we really want to tackle?”

“We’ll have whiteboards. We’ll have sticky notes, we’ll have people writing down their ideas, compiling their ideas. I don’t really think we want to even throw any ideas out there for people. I think we want to hear what the people have to say,” says Alderson.

She says she knows that changing city code for STRs won’t solve Sitka’s affordable housing problem. But she thinks it’s a piece of the puzzle.

“Sitkans have always been pretty proactive, I think in in keeping track of our community and telling people what we want and how we want it,” says Alderson. And she hopes to see just that at the meeting on April 18.