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Renting a house in the Poconos for the weekend? It’s complicated.

Female hand holding keys with house key,real estate agent.
Nednapa/Getty Images/iStockphoto
The short-term rental industry is being met with mixed feelings in the Poconos.

While many businesses struggled during the pandemic, one saw revenues grow by the millions: the short-term rental (STR) industry.

Under the pressure of travel restrictions, Pennsylvanians looking to take a break from the confines of their homes while staying safe turned to the outdoors – especially the Poconos. Situated about two hours from Philadelphia and New York City, the pandemic turned the quiet mountains running through Wayne, Pike, Monroe, and Carbon counties into a vacation destination.

However, while the Poconos saw increased traffic during the pandemic, Chris Barrett, President and CEO of Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau (PMVB), says the Poconos has always been a hotspot for STRs.

“The Pocono Mountains and its surroundings and beauty kind of lends itself naturally to short-term rentals. And that type of rental has been happening in this area for centuries,” says Barrett.

Apps like Airbnb and VRBO turned STR into a buzzword, says Barrett.

“It's so much more mainstream now, because the guest really has control of selection of where they want to stay and the amenities that they want. Even [in the] 1940s and 1950s, a lot of real estate agents handled the direct booking of what short-term rentals were at that time: cabins, second houses, whatever you want to call them,” says Barrett.

Nowadays, the Poconos sees over 30 million visitors per year, according to a 2023 study conducted by East Stroudsburg University for PMVB. The same study found that tourism saves Poconos residents around $1,500 in taxes per year. However, while STRs revitalized the Poconos economy during the pandemic, their resurgence led to a series of unanticipated questions about their regulation.

Shawn McGlynn, a zoning/building/code enforcement officer for 14 municipalities across the Poconos and surrounding areas, says municipalities are defining what STRs are following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Slice of Life decision. The 2019 ruling allows local government to ban short-term rentals in single-family residential districts.

“At the very core, short-term rentals are a zoning matter,” explains McGlynn. “So, they should be regulated by municipalities through their zoning ordinance. So, anyone who wants to change the use of a property from a single-family dwelling to a transient-for-profit, short-term rental use would have to get a permit.”

While beautifully built STRs highlight the Poconos’s idyllic mountains and lakes, McGlynn adds that mismanaged ones can disrupt local communities.

“Some, particularly a certain number of short-term rental investors, really capitalized on this concept of the party house,” says McGlynn. “They would maximize how many beds, they would claim that they could sleep thirty. People would show up in buses.”

Some communities have opted to ban all STRs altogether to stop party houses from taking over their neighborhoods. Wayne Mauzer, President of Cobble Creek Community Association, manages one of these communities. WVIA News reached out to over ten HOAs and Cobble Creek was the only one who agreed to an interview. Two other HOAs spoke to us off-the-record.

“The serenity of the property, the area, the quietness, would not lend itself to short-term rentals. Again, I told you we have some people that have tried to short-term rent their properties by saying they were friends [of the owner] and so forth and so on. And we get, we get parties, all of a sudden, and you see there's eight, nine, ten cars in a particular house, and there's parties and they're drinking and shooting off fireworks,” says Mauzer.

As the industry’s opponents push for increased legislation or outright bans on STRs, many supporters advocate for better enforcement of existing laws on STRs. Chryssa Yaccarino mangages her family’s STR, which has run for around 50 years. She expressed frustration with the quality of STR regulation.

“Good STR owners were jumping up and down saying, 'Crack down on these bad houses!' And they wouldn't -- it was like they were hesitant to do anything. Which is utterly unfair. Do enforce the rules you have in place. Don't now make it harder for everybody else,” says Yaccarino.

While townships, boroughs, and homeowners associations have authority to regulate STRs, many people – both STR owners and those living nearby – say current legislation has not done enough to protect local communities. Amy Young, vacation rental business owner and administrator of “Things to Do in the Poconos,” a Facebook group with over 40,000 followers, says STR regulation has a long way to go.

“People are still complaining about the same things and the same houses. And I think that the government is limited on how to enforce this. I think a lot of them are still kind of learning the process in order to take these houses down,” Young says.

Aside from municipalities, STR owners often regulate themselves to ensure that their businesses are protected from disrespectful renters and general wear and tear. Bill Allen, a STR owner, says he monitors who enters his property.

“If I see a list with like, six or seven guys, I'll ask 'Is this a bachelor party?' Or they'll tell me, 'Hey, we're coming out there for paintball or fishing or skiing.' Y'know, I kind of vet that a little bit,” Allen says.

Owners are also creating their own groups for STR resources and support. Earlier this year, a group of STR owners created PoconosVRO, a trade association focused on lobbying for STR owners’ interests. President Mark Shay says the association educates owners and municipalities on STRs.

“We don't regulate ourselves. There is a pledge that we ask our members to take which is focused on delivering quality service, being a good neighbor. And then for these as businesses, because technically they are operating as independent small businesses, we want to provide services and support to help them run a better business, and ultimately a profitable business,” says Shay.

However, neither owners nor associations can predict who will abuse their properties. Municipalities and HOAs often only find out about a bad renter after he disrupts neighbors. Allen says he focuses on community impact when dealing with his renters.

“I don't know what's going on behind anybody's closed doors, whether they're a renter or resident,” says Allen. “And that's, and that's not my concern, what my concern is affecting the quality of life of the neighbors.”

Neighbors often have to take it into their own hands to alert their HOA and local municipalities of issues caused by bad renters and STR mismanagement. Some say no one is listening.

“It seems like the more people express how concerned they are about the situation, the more it gets ignored.”

That’s Patrick Garrity. He used to work the gate of a private community before suffering serious health issues from stress. The line outside of the gate reaches a mile long during rush hour – because of the explosion of STRs in the community. Every night after coming home from work, he says his voice cracked from the pressure.

“There are bad actors, y'know, that are involved in this that are just making it a nightmare for everyone. It's not all of them. It's a small percent that no matter what restrictions you put on them, they're gonna go that extra inch until the line to see how far they can go before it's dealt with and it's killing people. People want out. And for everyone that gets out, it becomes a rental. It's just a downward spiral,” Garrity says.

People like Garrity, fed up with party houses and overburdened communities, wish to leave their homes for a calmer part of the Poconos. However, many say investors inundated the marketplace, making it difficult for families and individuals to find affordable housing. Zoning/Code/Building Enforcement Officer Shawn McGlynn says that new businesses are taking advantage of the housing crunch by creating alternatives for Poconos residents.

“STRs have really driven up real estate values to the point that there are no rental units for worker housing. So, now we have a real demand for apartment buildings in the region. Because there's no place for the people who work at Kalahari or a Great Wolf. There's no place for them to live because it's much better if you're going to buy a residential property to turn it into an STR than would be to rent long-term. Your profits are far greater as an STR,” McGlynn says.

However, some residents wanting to move away from STR communities feel trapped by today’s housing marketplace. Garrity says that the damage from living in a community saturated by STRs limited his financial options.

“You can't get out of here.” Garrity says. “I mean, we were looking online for listings the other night to see what our options would be. Even if we had the money, we would have to go far enough that we would both have to find new jobs because there's absolutely nothing around here because they're all bought up by short term rentals.”

Just as some neighbors are negatively affected by STRs, some owners say they face undue blame for the Poconos’ financial struggles. Longtime owner, Chryssa Yaccarino, says she has become their scapegoat.

“Well, I'm being vilified, I guess. Y’know, for something that we've done – I've been a part of for my entire life. I'm taking away property, I'm part of the housing crisis, I'm part of pollution, I'm part of crime increasing…I’m part of everything that's anything bad that's happening in the Poconos," says Yaccarino.

Many STR owners are not blind to the issues nearby residents face from mismanaged properties and overwhelmed communities. However, they can only ask that disgruntled neighbors report their concerns to the authorities. STR business owner Amy Young says she acknowledges the pain of living in communities overwrought by bad STRs.

“I feel genuinely bad for people who live next to a party house and houses that have destroyed quality of life. And the problem is, is that for a long time, I've gone out to township meetings and I've listened to people cry, y'know. Every weekend people come in and the guests are just horrible. And I would say to them is just keep reporting them,” says Young.

STRs inevitably change the communities they pop-up in. Sometimes for the better, through beautification efforts and raising property values, but other times they leave long-time residents feeling disempowered in their own communities. As many people say, both owners and neighbors, STR regulation is a slow moving process. One thing is for certain – STRs and its part in the greater tourism industry – is at the heart of the Poconos.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.