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Larry Barnett
Public Citizen
Larry Barnett

No Neighbors/No Neighborhood: The Vacation Rental Problem

We all know times have changed; our world has simultaneously gotten smaller and our communications infrastructure has gotten larger. Communities are no longer restricted to physical proximity but to affinities of interest.

For all that, however, there is much to be said about getting to know one's neighbors and the overall effect of that on neighborhoods. Though we may not look out for one another in quite the same way our grandparents did, there is something reassuring and even comforting about seeing familiar faces and passing waves of hello. Long-term renters live on either side of the home my wife and I own and live in; we're not best buddies who socialize but in the pinch of an emergency or problem they know they can knock on our door and ask for help, and vice-a-versa.

This raises the problem of homes used for vacation rentals; the folks who come and go are strangers, and remain so. The fact is neighborhoods are made up of neighbors; eliminate the regular neighbors and you effectively eliminate neighborhood. What remains is a shell of a neighborhood, a sometimes picturesque or even charming tableau of nice-looking homes and gardens not unlike the stage set of a movie; the set remains, but the actors come and go. And, like life on any stage set, when the actors are not around, it's a lifeless ghost-town.

Zoning ordinances exist precisely to prevent this sort of problem. Zoning prevents the guy next door from turning his driveway into an open-air auto-repair shop and other neighbors from turning their houses into restaurants. Commercial uses, and that includes hotel-like overnight vacation rentals, change the character and feeling of a residential neighborhood into something altogether different.

There are those who argue in favor of dispensing with all the rules and "getting government out of the way of people's lives," including what they do with or at their homes. What such arguments ignore, however, is that government has been put in place precisely to prevent a single individual from imposing his or her individual will on everyone else. The alternative to regulation is essentially anarchy, which some people call "the unregulated free market." Such thinking ultimately can lead to people butchering animals in their backyards for a living room meat market, selling commercial food products from their porch that are not subject to any health inspections for sanitation and handling, and everything else you can imagine.

In our individualistic society we focus unduly on "rights" and tend to forget or ignore the other side of the equation upon which a good society depends, namely "responsibility." Of the two, responsibility is the most enduring and essential; a focus solely on rights quickly becomes a libertarian exercise in narcissistic behavior. Responsibility to our collective welfare and social aspirations is found through establishing relationships, not impersonal, purely materialistic financially-based transactions.

The rule of law is what we depend upon to keep the playing field level between those with unequal resources. Zoning is part of that essential legal framework, and represents the collective decision of elected leaders in carrying out a community's aspirations. Illegal vacation rentals erode both neighborhoods and respect for the rule of law; accordingly, effective and appropriate enforcement of zoning and permitting is essential. Either that, or we revert to the dog-eat-dog law of the jungle.

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