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Near Yosemite "It's Neighbor Warring Against Neighbor” Over Short-Term Rentals

Ezra David Romero
Valley Public Radio
In Madera County there are 300 plus short-term rentals. According to county staff that number is growing.

Most people in the mountain area around Oakhurst know Katie Miller as the Mountain Madam. That’s her brand. The London Properties' realtor and I are driving to an area north of Oakhurst where she recently sold a home that’s now listed on the online rental site Airbnb.

"Short-term rentals have basically taken over our regular rental market. We have walk-ins everyday . . . and we have nothing to provide them with."- Katie Miller, Realtor

“So that’s the Airbnb right here,” says Miller. “There’s a spiral staircase inside, all wood floors. They figured out how to maximize the space and put beds everywhere.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Katie Millers specializes in unique homes in the region.

Miller says the short-term rental market in the area has skyrocketed over the past two years. One of her clients recently bought a property with a cabin and a creek on it.

“His wife came in like the day before we closed, looked at what she needed for the area, went to Fresno, bought brand new stuff and then boom it was an Airbnb the next day,” Miller says.

Miller says this buyer is just one of many people she’s working with that are purchasing homes for the sole purpose of using them as short-term rentals. She says this has created a housing shortage in the region and that property managers in the area have growing waitlists.

“The short-term rentals have basically taken over our regular rental market,” Miller says. “So we have walk-ins everyday – they’re not looking to purchase a home, they’re just looking for some avenue to help them find a rental – and we have nothing to provide them with.”

She says it’s almost easier to buy a home here than to find a long-term rental. There are 300 plus short-term rentals in Madera County. The bulk are concentrated along the route to Yosemite and vacation destinations like Bass Lake. If the trend continues, up to a 100 new short-term rentals could be added to the area next year.

It’s great for a region with few industries and jobs, but for some cases it is dividing neighbors who don’t want to see their communities change. Others say the lack of long-term rentals could increase homelessness. Rhonda Salisbury with the Yosemite Madera County Visitors Bureau says all the short-term rentals serve as a huge economic boost to the region.

“It opens up a whole new world for families vacationing and it allows people to buy second homes because now they can rent them out and pay for the home,” says Salisbury. “It’s really boosted a lot of economies.”

"It's neighbor warring against neighbor. There was never any effort to work it out and it seems moot to me to even move forward because the issue is a non-issue now." - Mark Stamas

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
The home pictured was used as a short-term rental until the owner's neighbor sued over its use.

Former Madera County Supervisor Gary Gilbert lives in a subdivision between the communities of Oakhurst and North Fork. He and I are driving to see a two-story short-term rental two houses away from his ranch style property. Gilbert doesn’t like the idea of his neighbors changing regularly and says residential areas like the one he lives in aren’t zoned for businesses.  

“We did not know it was a short-term rental,” says Gilbert. “Nobody notified us, there was no review. All of a sudden we started noticing people walking around, families, and dogs. Who are these people?”

With constant visitors and absentee owners, he says more should be required from both the county and homeowners renting out the properties.

“What’d I’d like to see is the county first zone the property correctly, notify the public about what’s occurring,” says Gilbert. “At the same time county staff would inspect the facility. Does it have adequate water? Does it have adequate parking?”

In an area called Cascadel Heights near North Fork it’s gotten so bad that a resident is suing her neighbor over a short-term rental. Kris Hamilton’s attorney Walt Whelan says she’s suing local realtor Marie Iden because she doesn’t like the idea of not knowing who’s staying in the secluded neighborhood of 17 homes.

“They’re concerned about transient uses in their subdivision for a whole list of reasons,” says Whelan. “That particular subdivision is a high fire risk area. There have been instances in the last couple of years where the whole residential subdivision has been evacuated because of fire hazards.”

According to Whelan, the home of the woman suing was burned down this week in the Mission Fire that threatened at least 200 homes and burned hundreds of acres. Neither of the defendant’s two homes were burned by the fire and neither homeowner would speak with me on the record because the lawsuit is ongoing. Still Mark Stamas, who lives down the road, has watched the whole thing go down. He says continuing the lawsuit is trivial because the neighborhood recently voted to not allow short-term rentals in its list of covenants, conditions and restrictions.

“Yeah, it's neighbor warring against neighbor,” Stamas says. “There was never any effort to work it out and it seems moot to me to even move forward because the issue's a non-issue now.”

But no matter the cause, the lawsuit helped bring this issue to the forefront in Madera County. Until recently county code wasn’t clear about the legality of short-term rentals. But earlier this summer the county passed an ordinance that makes short-term rentals legal.

"I can work four hours here, where I'd have to work eight hours at my other job to make the same pay." - Arista Flanagan, Housekeeper

“We just did not see the impact or the fear that some of the residents had,” says Madera County Planning Director Matt Treber. “We just did not see it through our investigative work looking at these complaints on those two homes in North Fork.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Arista Flanagan works two jobs, but says cleaning Airbnb's is way more lucrative than her other housekeeping gig.

Now, to rent a place out the homeowner must file for a business license and pay a nine percent Transient Occupancy Tax. The county stands to make a lot of money from the tax and the 600 room hotel industry in the region doesn’t seem to mind the short-term rentals. Hotel operators in the area say they are often full and refer visitors to Airbnb when they’re booked.

Carol Severe, who manages 40 plus short-term rentals in the area for Bass Lake Home Rentals, says that without short-term rentals there would be fewer jobs in the region. She hires house cleaners, landscapers and maintenance crews. The homes she manages rent from around $600 to $7,000 a week.

“It seems like the vacation rental home owners take better care of their homes than the houses that are rented monthly, because you want it looking great every time somebody walks in,” says Severe.

One of those people benefiting from short-term rentals is housekeeper Arista Flanagan. She says it’s given her consistent year-round work. She cleans three Airbnb’s between Bass Lake and Oakhurst for a homeowner that lives in San Diego.

“I can work four hours here, where I’d have to work eight hours at my other job to make the same pay,” says Flanagan. “So for me it's very nice because I have two little kids - so it's nice to be able to not have to be away from them all day.”

But while Flanagan is doing well, others are being hurt by the short term rental economy shift and the housing shortage. And anyone who has lost a home in the region due to fire damage may also be looking for temporary housing. We’ll hear their stories next week. 

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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