2018-02-02 / Front Page

City signals ban on most short-term rentals

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


John Murphy in front of the home overlooking Willard Beach that he has owned since 1985. Between the mortgage and his $12,377 annual property tax bill, the retiree said he fears he will lose his home if not allowed to rent out the upper-floor to short-term tenants, a ban proposed by the South Portland City Council due for a vote in February. (Duke Harrington photo) John Murphy in front of the home overlooking Willard Beach that he has owned since 1985. Between the mortgage and his $12,377 annual property tax bill, the retiree said he fears he will lose his home if not allowed to rent out the upper-floor to short-term tenants, a ban proposed by the South Portland City Council due for a vote in February. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — In light of expected city council action designed to ban most so-called short-term rentals in South Portland, John Murphy is worried, frustrated, and, quite literally, in tears.

The worry is that if the city steps in to stop him from earning the kind of money possible from renting his second story apartment to a series of vacationers, rather than a full-time, year-round tenant, he will end up losing his home. The market rate for a regular rent is simply not enough to help him, as a retiree on a fixed income, to keep up with the mortgage and annual $12,377 tax bill on the home he has owned since 1985.

The frustration is that the city council has not addressed the calls of Murphy and other owners of short-term rentals to create an ad hoc study committee. Since the first council workshop on the issue, Murphy says, he and other homeowners have asked the council to examine all facets involved, so that it not respond solely to the outrage of short-term rentals opponents, who, he says, are justifiably upset over what is taking place at some properties, where large boisterous groups have been known to turn tranquil neighborhood homes into weekend party pads.

“We have asked them time and time and time again to please form a citizens committee to really examine the issue, but so far they have refused to so much as acknowledge the request,” Murphy said, Jan. 30 during an interview at his home. “So far, all I’ve got is one message from the mayor (Linda Cohen) telling me that wasn’t going to happen. It was not addressed to the city manager, or any of the other councilors. Just me. So, I guess that’s something she decided on her own.”

“And its not just her,” Murphy said. “Councilor Claude Morgan, who represents my district, has refused to answer even a single one of my emails to him.”

And then come the tears. And they are not for his home, or his uncertain future.

Instead, Murphy takes out a book of handwritten notes from the people who have vacationed at his home. Built in 1890 as The Willard Inn, the structure had was boarded up and dilapidated by the early 1980s, when it and the adjacent Willard Hotel were purchased by a local police officer. The hotel was torn down, the inn gutted to its studs and converted into a single-family home with a second floor apartment. But when Murphy bought it in 1985, it was still a relative bargain compared to current home prices in the area.

“You’ve got to remember, at that time, there were still pipes dumping raw sewage into the cove. So, it was not a particularly desirable place to be,” Murphy said.

But things did change over the decades. As they did, market values spiked dramatically, and four times Murphy had to struggle to pay off city liens, levied as he found it harder an harder to keep up with his spiraling tax bill. For 20 years, Murphy has rented his second floor to vacationers. Although the practice of letting out short-term rentals is often spoken of as a recent phenomenon, Murphy says it’s existed for at least as long as the internet has enabled the kind of interpersonal communication that makes arranging such deals possible.

More recently, however, Murphy has taken to giving the unit for free to families of sick children, whenever a vacancy or rental cancellation allows.

The practice, which now extends to an agreement with the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland, began almost by accident. A mutual friend put Murphy in touch with Max and Janine Salevsky of Hollis, whose 8-year-old daughter Natalia had leukemia. His home, Murphy felt, might offer a welcome respite for the family, being that the front door opens directly onto Willard Beach, what is these days one of the most serene spots in all of southern Maine.

“I can’t express to you what a nice thing this was he did for us, a person who was total stranger to our family at the time,” Salevsky said Tuesday. “It allowed us a chance to come together and decompress, if you will, from the pressure of everything we had gone through, from being a prisoner of what had become a daily process for us. I can’t even tell you how turned over my young children were by everything that happened, and then, to be allowed this — it was a stay we would never have been able to afford otherwise.

“And for my daughter, our visit was a chance to enjoy just being a kid again,” Salevsky said. “When we were there, I saw her smile for the first time in months. That’s something we can never repay.”

When Natalia was 10, her cancer returned, and Murphy offered the family a second stay. That was three years ago and she has since died. Since then, Murphy began to offer free stays with other families with sick children. One boy, Liam, died just weeks after staying at Murphy’s home this past December.

In his hands, Murphy holds the book of notes from his guests. His hands linger over the letter from the Salevsky family. He turned the page, sees the photo of another young girl with cancer who stayed, and he can’t help having to choke back tears. It takes several moments before he is able to speak again.

“This is what the council is preventing,” he says, at last. “Being here, it takes some stress off the parents. It lets them be a normal family for a few days with their kids. How powerful can that be? Your whole life has been turned upside down, you’ve been told your kid is dying and there’s nothing you can do. Can you imagine the pressure? And they are able to come here and simply relax.

“And because the council has refused to consider any other points of view, because they are trying to smother all activity like this with a single blanket, this is something that can never happen again,” Murphy says, choking up again.

Under the proposed rules change, a person would be able to rent a single bedroom to a no more than two people. But in the residential zones, a home could not be rented when the owner is away. Also in residential districts, no space, whether a home or an apartment unit, could be rented for a period of less then 30 days.

Murphy will be forced to find a full-time tenant, he says, forcing him to end both the short-term rentals and the free stays he is able to offer between paying guests.

“All we are asking for is for the council to put the brakes on this,” Murphy says. “Myself and the other people who do short-term rentals, we actually want to be regulated. We recognize there are some abusers out there. But in its rush to judgment, the council is completely subverting the democratic process.”

“All we ask for is that they take the time to listen before imposing this limit on us, that they allow a committee to work on it that will consider all sides, that they follow a process, and not just ruin lives because some people have sent complaints to them about other people who have nothing to do with most of us who have rented our homes like this for years, decades, with full knowledge by the city that it was being done, and with no problems whatsoever.

“We are just asking them to be fair.”

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