What could have been a heated debate turned into a productive conversation on the pros and cons of the booming short-term rental (STR) market in Packwood on Thursday night, according to STR owner Ryan Southard.
As Lewis County works to address housing issues in the region, Senior Long-Range Planner Mindy Brooks is heading a subarea plan for Packwood, which will direct policy in the area for 20 years following its creation. It’s set to be completed in about one year, which Brooks previously said is the shortest timeline she’s set for a planning project in her career.
The plan is guided by a community advisory committee, which is composed of locals representing the various stakeholders in Packwood including Southard. That committee’s workshops are steered by comments from public hearings.
On Thursday night, the public was invited to weigh in on the topic of STRs.
Lewis County’s easternmost community in the last few years has seen a huge rise in tourism. In 2019, the Packwood Visitor’s Center welcomed under 2,000 guests whereas in 2021, it had seen close to 6,000 by October. This means profit for homeowners who can rent out their places to guests. This can be done through Airbnb, VRBO, some real estate companies and with direct-to-renter communication from the owners.
Given that STR owners do not have to get a business license from Lewis County, the county does not have an exact total of rentals. According to Assessor Dianne Dorey, data should be coming in from a consulting company sometime in March. AirDNA, a website that collects lodging data, listed 204 active rentals in the Packwood area this week.
Southard, who owns four STRs in Packwood and is a full-time resident, usually counts between 200 and 230 STRs “if I get the map around Packwood as most people understand it,” he said.
Some residents have issues with the fact Lewis County has little-to-no regulations in place on STRs. There have also been claims, in Thursday’s meeting and in past forums, that STRs are eating up the stock of available housing in Packwood, contributing to huge spikes in home costs and discouraging homeowners from offering long-term rentals.
One forum attendee Thursday framed the issue by saying the STR market “misallocates spaces that should go to residents and potential new residents.”
Southard recognized there is a crisis with the lack of affordable housing. He also listed problems with STRs that need to be addressed for the benefit of the community, as residents in Thursday’s forum did.
But, Southard said, “This notion that if you shut down all of the short-term rentals tomorrow all of our homes will become long-term rentals, that there'd be this bumper crop of affordable housing units, is just magical thinking.”
Southard and his wife Valerie Neng worked on developing affordable housing in New York and Seattle for 22 years before moving to Packwood. He said they’ve spent plenty of time thinking about the issue in the area and coming up with ways they could address it. Though, getting rid of STRs, he said, just doesn’t “pencil out” to a high stock of affordable units. Instead, he said those vacation rentals would sit “mothballed, effectively” for most of the year while out-of-town owners lived full-time elsewhere.
One STR pro that was stated Thursday was related to Southard’s sentiment, when it was said STRs “prevent vacant vacation homes that attract crime.” Likewise, another resident said, “eyes on the street equals less crime.”
Other positives voiced in the meeting were the local employment provided by the STR market, including housekeeping and landscaping jobs, an influx in customers supporting local business and that STRs make the nearby national and state parks more accessible.
“That’s a benefit. I think that STRs are needed for people from diverse backgrounds from other parts of the state to be able to access the state and national parks that everybody should be able to enjoy,” said an attendee.
Cons listed, besides those related to the effect on stock of residences, mostly were related to negative consequences to the community-feel of the mountain town, where elk in backyards are as novel as pigeons by a bus stop.
Those negatives included out-of-touch guests including late-night partiers, hostility due to the divisiveness of the STR debate, not knowing the neighbors, a lack of infrastructure in Packwood to support the number of visitors and that there are apparently fewer volunteers to operate senior centers, fire departments and other services.
“We don’t have enough people here seven days a week to do these things because we have people here living in the housing that we are allocating to short-term rentals which had previously been seven day a week renters who were participating. So we’re running on a shoestring. So most of us who volunteer are volunteering at like three or four of these things just trying to make it work,” said one resident.
Neng and Southard disputed the idea that regulation of STRs equals more “seven-day-a-week renters” who can fill volunteer positions.
Southard said there are huge numbers of people in Portland and Seattle right now who are buying vacation homes and spending time in places such as Packwood. Whether or not the county regulates STRs, he said, those people will continue to buy those homes. And long-term renting involves a level of risk — which was amplified by arguments against Washington’s eviction moratorium put in place during the pandemic — that landowners are simply not willing to take on anymore. Plus, short-term renting is far more profitable. AirDNA estimates the average daily rate of a stay in Packwood is $229.
While stating he did not want to speak for the entire STR owner community of Packwood, Southard did say he believes most would be in favor of reasonable regulations by Lewis County. He also has ideas for moving forward, such as possibly creating a housing trust out of lodging tax dollars. Neng also addressed the community-related issues, saying she would be interested in having Packwood STR owners staff some kind of community safety officer to investigate complaints about guests.
“We really see ourselves as fellow community members who are ready to partner to get solutions going, and we just want to kind of work together because we see affordable housing as an issue,” Neng said. “We have a problem growing our company, growing our business. We can’t just hire people because they don’t have a place to live. We see it as an issue and we want to work towards the solution together.”
To Give Input:
• The housing forum series is open to the public. Meetings will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. with a location to be determined on the following topics/days:
Affordable housing: March 24
Zoning: April 21
• Email Lewis County Senior Long Range Planner Mindy Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Take surveys or read more material at https://bit.ly/3ufKshd