TRPA is failing Tahoe residents on short term rentals (Opinion)

Richard Miner
Guest column

TRPA is failing Tahoe residents on short term rentals

April 2020 set a new benchmark for visitors to the Tahoe Basin – more than the usual high season in July – and that doesn’t begin to capture the tens of thousands who came through Incline Village/Crystal Bay and other small communities around the lake throughout the pandemic.

Thousands booked their stays in short-term rentals, which surprisingly were allowed to operate while hotels were forced to shut down out of public health concerns about COVID community spread. The waves of visitors not only presented a danger to human health, but they were also a threat to the environmental health of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Short-term rentals and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency have had a questionable history. While TRPA’s stated mission is to “… lead the cooperative effort to preserve, restore, and enhance the unique natural and human environment of the Lake Tahoe Region, while improving local communities, and people’s interactions with our irreplaceable environment,” it is dropping the ball in preserving the unique natural environment when it comes to short-term rentals.

Indeed, in the past local Tahoe residents and businesses have known TRPA to be a lion when expanding a property, removing trees or taking on major projects such as eliminating invasive species. So, why has TRPA been a lamb when it comes to short-term rentals — the issue that in recent years has had a dramatically adverse effect on the fragile basin and the very fabric of communities TRPA was established to protect?

In 2004 TRPA approved short-term rentals as a permitted “residential use” in spite of initial staff recommendations against doing so. Furthermore, many of the critical historical documents surrounding this decision seem to have disappeared from TRPA files. We need to revisit this topic with urgency, due to the hyper acceleration of tourism driven by short term rentals.

Much has been written on the growth in STRs and their negative traveler impacts to Tahoe, as well as in national publications including the Washington Post and The New York Times.

The stories all center on the “overtourism” and “hotelification” created by short-term rentals. This results in neighborhoods — zoned as primary residential — being plagued by overflowing houses and condos; parked cars blocking streets and overflowing lots; and trash-strewn trails, beaches, and parks. This past summer all of that came atop yet another dangerous wildfire season and a never-ending pandemic, severely compounding public safety and health crises and further endangering Tahoe communities.

It’s been estimated that short-term rentals allow for 10 times the average number of occupants as an average owner-occupied residence.

An additional consequence of short-term rentals concerns affordable housing, another major issue in the basin. Each housing unit converted to a short-term rental reduces the overall housing stock available to long-term residents. This drives up rents and home prices and simply overwhelms any progress made by public-private initiatives to create more affordable housing.

Permanent residents with a stake in the community, environment and overall health of the basin are replaced by transient renters with no such vested interests. Again, the end result is the further degradation of Tahoe communities and the environment.

Yet, incredibly, TRPA has done no formal, comprehensive environmental impact study on short-term rentals. According to the agency, in 2004 they created a mere “check list” when making a determination on STRs. Ultimately, it has been left to the communities surrounding the lake to create a patchwork of STR ordinances, while fighting well-funded realtor groups, their lobbyists and PR agencies, who benefit from the input of attorneys at billion-dollar corporations such Airbnb.

The experience of this past year alone proves there has been a significant and material change in Tahoe due to short-term rentals. Online platforms (Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, etc.), which first came into existence beginning in 2008, have since enabled the commercialization of short-term rentals on an industrial scale. Both STRs and the web sites that flog them have grown exponentially ever since.

As the five California and Nevada counties surrounding the lake continue to struggle with mitigating the impact of short-term rentals, TRPA must now “lead from behind” and finally live up to its mission by weighing in with a full environmental impact study. Better late than never.

Richard Miner is the former president of the Incline Village & Crystal Bay Historical Society.

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