Airbnbs and Affordable Housing | Guest column

By Sue McCullough

I am a long-term resident of Lopez Island and have worked at the ferry landing for many of those years. The sheer volume of visitors has grown at an alarming rate, and this trend is testing the resources of our island in ways we never imagined. One huge contributing factor is the phenomenon of Airbnbs.

Lopez used to have a moderate number of vacation rentals, limiting the number of overnight visitors. Now, a quick check on Airbnb shows 83 rentals, and on VRBO, over 50 houses. Many more people are jumping on the bandwagon, and the number of vacation rentals is skyrocketing. This means literally thousands more tourists on Lopez who drive their cars to get here, take up limited ferry reservations, use our precious resources and eliminate the last year-round rentals. If you build it, they will come!

Down at the ferry landing, we are seeing a volume of traffic that’s unprecedented. We are regularly overloading the Lopez Only boats, even mid-week. The medical clinic is unable to find housing for new staff, and is operating at full capacity just serving islanders. They have seen a dramatic uptick in medical emergencies during the summer months. We can all imagine a scenario where there literally aren’t enough medical personnel to address multiple emergencies.

All of these visitors are using our non-renewal aquifer water, septic systems, transfer station, and creating an additional volume of vehicle/bike traffic on the roads, and foot traffic to our public lands. Airbnb hosts often leave detailed notes on how to get to all their “favorite, secret spots,” which means sending people to places like Point Colville, which has no parking.

The other, perhaps more critical, issue is that of affordable housing. People who once rented their homes year round have turned to the cash cow of vacation rentals. Some folks are camping out for the summer to rent their houses. Some have actually built new houses and are renting their old ones. This is taking an enormous toll on our resources and community. We have homeless people, and businesses that can’t find workers because there’s no place for them to live.

I have no objection to tourism, but this is NOT a sustainable road we’re heading down! Eliminating year round housing in favor of making big bucks in the summer has consequences. It contributes to the loss of a thriving community that includes young people, not just the aging, wealthy or retired. It contributes to the gradual erosion of our natural resources, through water consumption, pollution and general degradation of public lands. We may have a medical crisis that cannot be treated due to lack of personnel.

Please, if you are operating a vacation rental, don’t send your visitors down to the ferry landing an hour early to walk the Upright Head Preserve; we have enough problems already! Don’t leave detailed instructions how to get to the most inaccessible spots on Lopez. Encourage visitors to use minimal water, take their garbage back home, not party late at night, and treat our island with loving care. This trend is unsustainable, and I fear the Lopez Island we know and love will soon become a distant memory.