The county needs to move to improve the supply of housing in Joshua Tree, rather than restricting it.
Tourism in Joshua Tree exploded in the last five years, with annual visitors to the national park doubling from 1.5 million to 3 million. That’s 400 times the village population of 7,400 at the last census, a huge number to accommodate. Where would they stay without the hundreds of BNBs that have mushroomed overnight? The recent upswing of tourism and the trending of Joshua Tree itself owe a lot to the growth in BNBs or short-term rentals (STRs).
Some feel that BNBs are the best thing that ever happened to the Joshua Tree economy — if one could even consider the depressed state here 10 years ago as an economy at all. Others see them as a curse on the quality of living. BNBs are blamed for noise, rude tourists, rising rents and a housing shortage.
Complaints outnumber more favorable comments like this one on Nextdoor: “Airbnb has been a blessing to JT. So many blighted properties fixed. So much $$ pumped into the economy. Much better quality of humans around now too.” In a word, gentrification — in Joshua Tree?!
The county is patiently listening to complaints and drafting an ordinance to address them. This effort focuses on rules meant to mitigate nuisances, not on rents and jobs.
Yet problems like noise occur in a minority of cases, and are common to all types of housing. Rather than imposing detailed restrictions on the entire BNB community, the county already has two powerful tools to resolve problems as they arise: the ability to cancel permits, and the vacation rental complaint line.
Some proposed rules seem contradictory. For instance, no more than one unit should be allowed per parcel, the owner must live on the property, and renting out a portion of a home won’t be allowed. Owners would only be able to rent out the place to themselves....
Confusion may arise from inventing too many rules to solve “the problem” and mollify disgruntled residents. On a micro NIMBY level, the rules attempt to reduce the impact of STRs on neighbors, by limiting the number of guests and units per parcel. This will actually worsen the basic problem: Where to house 3 million guests in a small village, without using up all the affordable real estate. More, not fewer, homes will be needed for the wave of tourists, instead of long-term tenants. Will that improve the quality of living?
Banning vacation rentals outright would reduce rents and property prices, but tax revenues and jobs, too, so quality of living would still take a hit.
Economists say that restrictions on the housing market generally reduce home prices and rents, and they are not in favor. It may come as a surprise that economists actually view rising prices as a good thing, a sign that properties are finding their highest and best use. Vacationers will pay extra to stay near JTNP, while residents might not even go there.
The nicer the nice, the higher the price, too. Affluence attracts amenities — the best school districts also have the highest home prices. Regulations that improve the quality of living can also increase property values and rents, which encourages investments and new construction to augment the housing supply.
So the STR ordinance as drafted is set to raise rents from both directions: by reducing supply, and enhancing quality of living.
Since not all noise and rental cost problems are due to tourism, cracking down on STRs won’t make them go away. The best way would be to enforce noise and nuisance ordinances directly.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This is part one of a two-part series; part two will be published next week and the essay will be published in full on www.hidesertstar.com.