3 Bedrooms, 16 Guests: Over-taxed Rental Sparks Registry Discussion

By: Alan Pollock

CHATHAM An online rental site recently advertised a house in Chatham that could accommodate 16 guests. Trouble is, it has only three permitted bedrooms.

“There’s evidence that they had construction work done to add an extra bedroom and bathroom on the second floor and additional bedrooms in the basement,” board of health member Richard Edwards said last week. “They should be forced to deconstruct that house and bring it back into compliance.”

Health Agent Judith Giorgio said the property in question has a three-bedroom septic system. “The basement does not have the proper egress and they’re not legal bedrooms,” she said. “That doesn’t mean people aren’t going to sleep there.” Giorgio said the owner of the property is now in talks with the building department, and while the remedy is not immediately clear, “I do know that this has been removed from the rental site as a six bedroom.”

“I suspect if one did a study looking at all the ads for rentals, you would see a pattern where the number of people who could sleep there would, in many cases, not jibe with the number of bedrooms,” board Chair John Beckley said.

The example raised the prospect of a town registry of short-term rentals in order to ensure that health and safety regulations are being followed. Short-term rentals of 31 days or less have been included in the state room tax since 2019 and have yielded significant revenue, but local towns are not privy to the database of rentals and the town would have to develop its own registration and inspection system.

While the state building code regulates the occupancy of buildings based on square footage, the health department regulates septic systems, the size of which which governs the number of bedrooms that can be permitted. Beckley wondered what might happen to a three-bedroom septic system if it were severely overtaxed.

“How would it do for a season if there were eight people or 10 people there?” he asked.

Giorgio said this particular instance spurred a discussion between her and Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan.

“Over the years we’ve talked about rental registrations or bylaws,” Giorgio said. “I think that this is a pretty common problem in the town, that people are renting these properties out as four, five, six bedrooms when there are legally only three bedrooms.” The rules are clear, “but as you can imagine, it’s very hard to enforce on a rental situation that’s short-term,” she said.

“But you could do a search for rentals in Chatham and see what people are advertising,” Edwards said. “If they’re advertising ‘accommodates 12 people’ in a house that has three bedrooms, then they should be prohibited from doing that,” he said.

The most efficient way to do so is with a registration system for summer rentals, Giorgio replied. Such a system is in place in Dennis, where Giorgio formerly worked. There, overseeing summer rentals represents a significant amount of work for the health department.

“Dennis did it in the '70s when they had a lot of people renting properties to summer kids and there were a lot of parties,” she said. “It was more of a way to control that.” Registrants report the number of bedrooms and the size of the rooms and the town provides an inspection for fire safety compliance and issues a permit that is valid for a year or some other period of time.

“But again, that’s not something we can do with our current staff in any of our departments,” Giorgio said. While the idea of creating a rental registry emerges occasionally, “we haven’t gone there because we didn’t feel like we had a big problem.”

“We looked into this,” Beckley said. “At the end of the day we said, well, how many instances can we point to of real problems, with police reports and too many people making noise and destructing the neighborhood – complaint violations – or any evidence of mid-summer, late-summer septic failures induced by homes that were excessively occupied? And we didn’t have any of those, either,” he said.

Still, the matter of questionable rentals is not likely to go away. The town recently intervened in the case of a resident renting out a camper bus, using a portable toilet for a bathroom.

Lately, the problems seem to be linked to the use of online rental sites like Airbnb, Giorgio said. During the pandemic, “with people coming to town and renting their property or staying for longer, it seems to be more of an issue,” she added.

Any response by the town would need to involve more than just the health department, Giorgio said. She estimated that Chatham would need to hire a part-time inspector and a full-time administrative assistant, “minimum, to do this and to do it properly.”

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said it’s also not work that can only be done in the summertime.

“It is a year-round issue,” he said. People are renting for the summer, but a lot of the transactions take place in the winter.” Regulating rental properties would need to be a proactive process. “You can’t just wait and, in the summer, respond to emergencies.”

Duncanson agreed that the problem is likely more widespread than it appears.

“This one was flagrant because of what they posted online,” he said. “But a lot of people don’t post online like that, so we may not have a way of hearing about it.”

Asked if the town could utilize the database generated by the state short-term rental tax, Duncanson said in an email that his understanding is that the list of properties is not readily available to municipalities.