New Jersey resident Ricky Cortez and his family bought a second home in Pennsylvania’s scenic Pocono Mountains in 2017 as a peaceful place to vacation and ultimately retire in their golden years.
“We love heading to the beaches and swimming in the pools,” Ricky said. “My favorite time with our family is on boats, kayaking or sailing.”
When the family isn’t vacating there, they rent the house out as a vacation rental named Mt. Maplewood Lodge on online booking platforms like Vrbo to help offset the cost of the mortgage, maintenance, and improvements. In doing so, Ricky joined in the area’s long-standing history as a vacation rental destination.
Vacation rentals have been part of the fabric of the community since at least 1945 when Rudolf Von Hoevenberg opened the first honeymoon resort, The Farm on the Hill, a collection of rustic cabins and a main lodge.
Later, the area’s reputation as a honeymoon and vacation destination grew as more developers constructed neighborhoods around man-made lakes. Many urbanites from New York City, Philadelphia, and other nearby cities bought or rented vacation homes in the Poconos to escape from the stresses of city life and enjoy rest, relaxation, and recreation all four seasons of the year. Recreational options over the years expanded beyond hiking and whitewater rafting on the Delaware River to include ski resorts and a water park.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling prompts review of short-term rental regulations
Ricky’s plan encountered a bump in the road when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an opinion on a case arising from Poconos in April 2019 that thrust the region’s history of vacation rentals into legal limbo. The ruling prompted townships not just in the mountain region but around Pennsylvania to create, or clarify, their ordinances on short-term rentals.
Later that year, Ricky attended a meeting hosted by the Tobyhanna Township to discuss its short-term rental ordinance.
A few poorly run vacation rentals with a repeated pattern of parties and disruptions had turned some members of the community into vehement opponents of short-term rentals, and Ricky wanted to see how he could help to resolve the conflict.
During the meeting, a couple stood up to talk about a problematic short-term rental near their home. The wife expressed how upset she was about repeated disturbances at the property and spoke in favor of banning short-term rentals in Tobyhanna.
Ricky wanted to show how responsible renting practices could help prevent problematic guests. He stood up and described how he and his family carefully screen guests and make sure they understand and comply with local rules and regulations.
Modeling responsible renting practices
Ricky gives guests a code of conduct and requires them to sign a lease outlining rules that help protect the character of the neighborhood. For instance, quiet hours beginning at 10 p.m. are strictly enforced.
The family also uses a device inside the home to measure decibel levels to help prevent guests from disturbing the neighbors with excessive noise. The device notifies the guest with a text message and phone call when noise exceeds a certain level. Outside the home, they use outdoor cameras to observe how many vehicles are in the driveway to ensure the number of guests and vehicles match the reservation.
“By the end of the discussion, she came up to me, shook my hand, and said I wish I lived next to someone like you,” Ricky recounted. “That made me want to participate on another level.”
Fostering communication between vacation rental owners and neighbors
That moment was pivotal in Ricky’s decision to become an advocate, not only for vacation rental owners, but for their neighbors. In his mind, the biggest gap in resolving problems associated with short-term rentals was communication between vacation rental owners and neighbors, Ricky said.
Ricky founded the Poconos Vacation Rental Owners website in late 2019 as a way for neighbors to get in touch with owners to address disturbances or other issues at vacation rentals.
The website features a map where neighbors can search for a property by address or community. The website also serves as an educational resource on local regulations governing short-term rentals and best practices.
Ricky and other vacation rental owners also began working together to advocate for fair regulations that would help prevent nuisances in the community but also allow the Poconos to continue its tradition of vacation rentals.
He has been active in discussions on short-rental regulations in multiple jurisdictions in the Poconos, including the Tobyhanna and Coolbaugh townships.
“The township boards, after seeing me so many times, would call me by name, or I wrote letters to them,” Ricky said. “I sent in information I thought would help. I did some research for them. I just tried to participate as much as I could.”
Fair vacation rental regulations
He has advocated for short-term rental regulations that are fair and effective in protecting neighbors’ interests while still allowing the industry to exist, thrive, and contribute to the community’s tax base.
Some of the regulations have limited the number of people allowed per bedroom. Others have increased fines for noise violations.
The LNVHHA began regular meetings with Vrbo/Expedia Group to help in advocacy efforts and give feedback to the online travel agency on ways it could improve its services.
Ricky also has done one-on-one advocacy and education with individual vacation rental owners.
“I would say, do you know we have this organization, and are looking to make sure everybody is a participant in staying neighborly, being a productive member of the community, and making sure that the people we rent to are that, too, or else, we may lose the opportunity to be able to rent,” Ricky said.
He makes sure that owners know about the availability of noise-monitoring devices, exterior cameras, processes for effectively vetting guests, and clauses to include in a lease.
Making memories for families
Despite the challenges he has faced as a host, Ricky said he still enjoys the experience of hosting guests and helping families to create lifelong memories.
“I didn’t go on vacations as a kid, so I love planning activities in the area for families like white water rafting, ATVs, and skiing,” he said.
The longer he hosts the more connection he feels with his guests, especially those families who have started to come back to his home year after year.
“We all have the same goal: We want an awesome quality of life and peacefulness in and around our homes whether you live there, rent there, or come part-time,” he said.