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Whitefish must crack down on rogue rentals

by Daily Inter Lake
| November 19, 2023 12:00 AM

All bark, no bite.

That’s generally the approach Whitefish has taken with illegal vacation rentals operating in the city — and hoteliers, rental companies and homeowners playing by the rules have had enough.

A show of force is expected at Monday’s Whitefish City Council meeting to encourage the hiring of a short-term rental code enforcement position that’s already in the budget. 

Whitefish has no shortage of rules in place for how vacation rentals can operate within the resort community. 

Rentals of less than 30 days are allowed only within permitted zones, and the homeowner must obtain a permit and business license. There’s also a litany of additional standards, such as providing parking, city resort tax and state bed tax compliance, and inspections by the fire marshal.

According to city code, rentals operating outside of allowed zones or in violation of the standards are subject to “enforcement action.” A first violation is $300, with fines of $500 for each subsequent violation. Each day of illegal operation constitutes a separate violation, so it adds up quickly. 

What’s more, simply advertising an illegal vacation rental can be considered evidence of a violation, allowing an enforcement officer to snuff out potential violations in advance.

Whitefish’s penalties are substantial and would certainly deter many from soliciting and operating illegal rentals.

Today’s front-page story from the Montana Free Press notes that the city has licensed about 325 vacation rentals within its limits. Yet, AirDNA data shows approximately 780 short-term rentals within the city limits. That calculates out to roughly 450 illegal units in the city today.

Hiring an officer to crack down on rogue rentals would benefit the entire community. 

Vacation rentals displace units that would otherwise be on the market as long-term rentals, and opening these homes to local residents would fulfill a boost to Whitefish’s dire housing needs.

Illegal short-term rentals are also a nuisance within residential neighborhoods — strangers coming and going at all hours, while the illegal operator cashes in. Plain and simple, it’s not fair.

Ordinances without enforcement are about as useful as an accordion on a deer hunt. It’s time for Whitefish to put its own rules into play and hire a full-time enforcement officer.