Great Barrington – If voters on Monday approve a proposed short-term rental regulation, Great Barrington plans to hire a digital services company to make sure people adhere to the new rules.
Granicus, a company that specializes in online government services, will collect data and maintain a hotline through which neighbors can report neighbors, although the company says there are barriers to prevent unfair or false accusations.
Perhaps because the planned data collection process has not been explained to residents in detail, this digital “host compatibility” service is making some in the Greater Barrington area nervous. Residents prepare to vote at the city’s annual meeting on Monday on a proposed regulation regulating rents, as well as specifying 150 days a year that an individual can host tenants.
Citizens with an alternative regulation regulating hosting, but not specifying rental days, will also be petitioned to voters.
The discussion on the proposed Bylaw touched upon issues of oversight, including the possibility of surveillance by Granicus. The company estimates that the service will cost the city $10,000 a year.
Mark Prohinsky, city manager, said the town had not yet signed a contract with the company, nor had it budgeted for it. He said town officials would need future voter approval for the money.
Granicus’ clients include federal, state, and local municipalities. The company says it helps more than 400 towns and cities manage the supervision of rental hosts using web platforms like Airbnb and VRBO.
In Great Barrington, the number of active listings, as of Thursday, was 208.
Each of these, under the proposed township bylaw, must abide by a number of rules including registering with the town and paying taxes and fees. Hosts will also have to comply with safety rules and other regulations including noise, pets, and litter.
Granicus will simplify this. The company will make it easier for the city to send notifications to violators, for example.
Supporters of the regulation see it as a way to regulate rents without overburdening the town hall.
To do this, Granicus will mine the data to match addresses, people, and estimate rental activity.
“We unite [artificial intelligence] and human analysts to determine the exact addresses and owner information for each STR (Short Term Tenancy) that can be determined,” according to materials from Granicus on the city’s website.
What annoys a number of residents is the presence of a 24/7 hotline for “neighbors to report and resolve non-emergency incidents and suspicious practices in real time”.
The material says: “The complainant provides information about the alleged incident and is asked to send photos, videos or other evidence of the alleged infringement.”
Bylaws opponent and select board member Ed Abrahams, whose local partner began renting her home after moving in with him, is not a fan of the hotline — or the slate cap on rental days. At last week’s meeting, fellow board members asked, “Who bears the burden of proof? What are the rights of appeal and what will it cost us?”
No one answered. Abrahams has been mocked for accusing the system of “spyware.”
“If my next-door neighbor looks into my house and knows how many times someone has been, how often I’ve had company, and whether or not someone is paying me, I would call that spying, and that [just] He said, “Gary.”
Maureen Meyer has a home in her tight-knit Airbnb neighborhood, and she says her neighbors support her.
A short-term rental slate will be rolled out by Great Barrington voters at the city’s annual meeting on June 6.
She is in favor of regulating rents so that the city has solid information to work with. But she opposes the maximum in days as well as digital monitoring. Mayer doesn’t like “the idea of my neighbors taking secret films for me or my guests”.
“I don’t want to live in a place where people talk about each other,” she said. Neighbors talk to each other about concerns. I want the opportunity to come face to face with them.”
Laurel Anderson, Granicus’ vice president of product management, said in an email that the company has heard of this concern before but has safeguards in place.
Anderson suggests that the company’s complaints system will make it difficult for neighbors to use the hotline against each other for reasons other than valid complaints.
“All hotline complaints from jurisdictions that make use of host compliance are logged into the Host Compliance System and reviewed by the jurisdiction itself for accuracy and enforcement,” she wrote. “Furthermore, the hotline also collects information about the complainant, which gives the judiciary insight into repeat callers.”
Anderson added that in many communities most complainants cannot be anonymous, and the rental host will be promptly notified of complaints and will have “the opportunity to acknowledge, resolve and respond to hotline complaints made against their property.”
Some towns in the larger area leased Granicus, but none in the Berkshires. Red Hook, New York, one. City Supervisor Robert McKeown said he could not provide a review because the town’s regulation is in effect June 1.
Next to Great Barrington, Lennox has the county’s most active short-term leases, at 135, according to AirDNA. The Lenox Town Clerk oversees their registration.
Christopher Kitchen, city manager, said the borough found no need to hire outside help.
“So far people seem to be in agreement with the regulations that Linux has passed,” Kitchen said. The regulation was enacted in 2019. “We’re not looking to invade people’s lives – we’re just looking to create a standard for what’s allowed and what isn’t.”
He said he doesn’t necessarily think hiring a company like Granicus is wrong.
“It never entered the stream of our consciousness,” he said, noting that if there were problems in the future, the city could think of something similar.