The city began a housing study last fall to better determine how many short-term rentals there are within city limits and their impacts.
ELLSWORTH, Maine — Short-term rentals continue to gain popularity in Maine while simultaneously increasing concerns for some community members. Ellsworth is now the hub for this conversation.
AirDNA, which is a short-term rental data analytics resource, recently ranked Ellsworth as the second-best city in the U.S. to own an Airbnb or short-term rental property, with Columbus, Georgia listed as the first.
PJ Keenan, the executive director of Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce, said tourists beat the traffic in Bar Barbor and cut their travel costs by staying in Ellsworth, increasing the city’s demand for short-term rentals.
“Of course, Acadia National Park is the biggest draw to our area,” Keenan said. “That opportunity for our whole city is incredible, as long as it’s done responsibly by Airbnb owners.”
AirDNA cited that there are 709 active short-term rental properties in the city.
Despite many short-term rental property owners and travelers referring to AirDNA as a trusted resource for all things Airbnb, Ellsworth city planner Matthew Williams said their resource numbers are skewed.
“So, it includes Mariahville, Trenton, and Lamoine in those numbers,” Williams said. “They’re not all in Ellsworth.”
Williams said AirDNA tracks Airbnbs by zip code, explaining that Ellsworth’s zip code is shared with smaller neighboring cities.
According to Williams, the city began a housing study last fall to better determine how many short-term rentals there are in total within city limits, to understand the effects short-term rental properties have on the available housing market to decide which zones city leaders prefer to have short-term rentals in and where they would rather not, and to also determine how to best regulate short-term rental properties if they deem regulation necessary.
“We have certain zones specifically zoned for neighborhoods. If you have a large amount of short-term rentals happening in a neighborhood zone—it’s just a commercial property for someone who also isn’t living in the house,” Williams said. “It takes away from what is supposed to be a community of families who are going to work and adding to the community value.”
Williams said it’s not bad to own short-term rental properties, but he stressed that the property locations matter.
“Out by the lakes makes a lot of sense. It’s a whole bunch of camps out there, which is usually seasonal anyway,” Williams said. “In some ways, the more short-term rentals or the more vacation homes you have in a city, the more the seasonal tourist-based businesses do well. But when you’re looking at people actually staying and being part of the community long-term that piece is taken up and missing.”
Williams said the city is considering how to approach the conversation, but he mentioned some negative impacts having too many short-term rentals in an area geared more towards permanent family living can have.
“It just can disrupt a more quiet, family neighborhood setting, and people, understandably if you have a family, don’t really like that,” Williams said.
In some cases, guests can also fail to consider people who live in the area full-time, Williams said.
“People are visiting. Not everyone who visits is respectful of the space,” Williams said. “So, it can increase noise pollution, cause traffic or parking issues because people bring more cars than the family home is designed to have. I think the same goes for if you’re planning your vacation your mindset is very different than if you’re planning to live somewhere. The neighbors, you’re not going to see them after your two or three-day stay. But if you live somewhere, you’re going to see those neighbors every day for quite a while presumably.”
With all of Maine already facing a grave housing shortage, Williams said city leaders will be analyzing the Airbnb market to determine if short-term rental properties are taking up available housing that could be used for permanent residents.
Amanda Look, who manages short-term rentals at her company Salt Air Property Management, said she begs to differ.
Look said she manages some 80 short-term rentals in Bar Harbor, Ellsworth, and surrounding areas. She said she makes Airbnb owners who she works with sign contracts that include rules and regulations that their guests must follow to ensure they are not a nuisance to the communities that they visit.
Look said location doesn’t always play a massive role in whether a home should be used as an Airbnb or not.
“An Airbnb traveler is also looking for a high-quality home,” Look said. “This is a $4 million home. It’s never going to be affordable housing.”
Look said homes that travelers look to rent are typically properties that wouldn’t be affordable for the average family.
She said the Airbnb market rarely interferes with available affordable housing.
“The conversation between affordable housing and Airbnb needs to be separated. They’re not the same conversation,” Look said. “If you were to look at my 80 houses, there might be five that would, if they were put on the market today, would be less than $400,000.”
Williams said there are currently no regulations for short-term rentals in place, but the city may consider restricting Airbnbs to specific zones once they complete their city housing study.