PROVINCETOWN — Articles to establish a community impact fee on investor-owned short-term rental properties are on the town meeting warrants in Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Eastham this spring.
According to Provincetown’s warrant, the intent of Article 15 is “to discourage the ‘warehousing’ of apartments for short-term rentals, where developers purchase several units for the distinct purpose of renting them short-term, thereby removing them from the inventory of seasonal or year-round occupancy.”
The rules for the community impact fee are included in the same 2018 state law that created the short-term rental tax. The fee would apply when owners have more than one residential unit in the same town that is listed for short-term rental. It takes the form of a 3-percent surcharge on the booking price of those units. Options in the law allow towns to include or exclude short-term rental units that are on the same property as the owner’s primary residence, provided that property has three residential units or fewer.
At its April 4 town meeting, Provincetown will vote on an impact fee that would not apply to short-term rental units located at an owner’s primary residence. Eastham is planning two separate articles: one that does not apply to units at a primary residence, and one that does. Wellfleet is also planning to vote on both options, but the select board chose to apply a one-percent fee instead of 3-percent. Truro’s select board discussed the fee last week but decided to postpone the subject until after this year’s town meeting.
The Effects of the Fee
The impact fee has two effects: it raises prices at investor-owned short-term rentals relative to their competition, and it raises revenue that towns can use for housing efforts. The significance of those two effects has been harder to determine.
In Wellfleet, select board member Mike DeVasto said that a 3-percent fee would not meaningfully deter real-estate investors but might burden summer tourists. DeVasto argued for a one-percent fee instead.
The opposite opinion prevailed in Provincetown, with select board chair Dave Abramson saying that large investment companies were not a problem here yet, but an impact fee might keep them away. “It would be nice to be ahead of the problem for once,” said Abramson.
The actual revenue that would be generated by the fee is not known. For one thing, in both Provincetown and Eastham, the available data suggest that about 80 percent of rental units belong to people who don’t own multiple units and therefore would not be subject to the new fee.
In an October housing workshop, Provincetown’s assistant town manager, David Gardner, said the town doesn’t know how much money the fee would raise, but “we don’t think it’s a million dollars here.”
Eastham Finance Director Rich Bienvenue analyzed that town’s short-term rental taxpayer list and told the select board there were 179 taxpaying rentals that might be covered by an impact fee. If they each had $10,000 in bookings, then an impact fee of 3 percent on those properties would raise around $54,000 per year, Bienvenue said.
Bienvenue’s might be a low estimate. Based on calendar 2021 tax revenue, Eastham’s 947 short-term rentals (as listed in the state’s Public Registry of Lodging Operators) had a total sales figure of $17,161,000. That would put the average revenue per property at around $18,000 per year, not $10,000.
To learn more about how much money a community impact fee might raise, the Independent took a dive into state data sources.
Plymouth, Boston, Cambridge
Only 17 towns and cities statewide have implemented the community impact fee, and many of them are very small. None are on the Cape or Islands.
Three of them, however, have total short-term rental revenues that are broadly comparable to those in the Outer Cape towns. Plymouth brought in $707,000 in short-term rental tax revenue in 2021, according to information provided to the Independent by the state Dept of Revenue (DOR). Cambridge brought in $589,000, and Boston brought in $4,692,000.
Of the Outer Cape towns, Truro brought in the least short-term rental tax revenue in 2021, $778,000. Wellfleet brought in $919,000, Eastham received $1,029,000, and Provincetown collected $2,310,000, according to DOR figures.
(These short-term rental tax numbers are a subset of the towns’ more frequently reported “rooms tax” revenue. Rooms tax is also levied on stays in hotels, motels, and campgrounds. The short-term rental portion of the rooms tax is not posted online by the state, but it can be requested from the DOR.)
In 2021, Plymouth received $81,000 in community impact fee payments. Cambridge received $154,000, and Boston took in $866,000.
That means the impact fee brought in an extra 11 percent of the total short-term rental tax revenue for Plymouth. In Cambridge, the impact fee was worth another 25 percent of the short-term rental tax revenue, and in Boston it brought in an additional 18 percent of the short-term rental tax total.
No town is a perfect analog because each one has a different mix of property owners. But these towns have comparably-sized short-term rental sectors, and they provide some data about what a community impact fee has actually raised in practice.
If the Outer Cape towns were to fall in the middle of that range and raise a further 18 percent of their short-term rental tax revenues with an impact fee, that would mean $140,000 in Truro, $165,000 in Wellfleet, $185,000 in Eastham, and $415,000 in Provincetown.
Still a Small Business
Bienvenue told the Eastham Select Board there were 75 owners who might be covered by an impact fee: 57 who own two rental units, eight who own three, nine who own four, and one person who owns five. Together that amounts to 179 residential units, or 19 percent of Eastham’s 947 registered short-term rentals.
The Independent analyzed Provincetown’s short-term rental taxpayers list, which was provided by town staff in response to a public records request. The results were remarkably similar: 64 owners with two short-term rentals on the list, 13 owners with three, five owners with four, two owners with five, and one with six. Together that amounts to 203 units, which is 20 percent of the 997 units on the state’s public registry of short-term rentals for Provincetown.
The taxpayers list has some limitations: for instance, properties that have sold in the last two years often appear on the list under both sets of owners. Also, almost 200 units are listed under corporations, realty trusts, or property management companies, and tracking these back to individuals takes a lot of time.
This analysis also suggests a counterintuitive conclusion: the ultimate goal of a community impact fee here might be to keep the resulting revenue flat, or even declining. If the idea is to “discourage the warehousing of apartments,” as Provincetown’s warrant says, then rising revenue would actually be a sign that the policy isn’t working as intended.