The closed National Bank of Davis sits on the main street in town, William Avenue. Photo by Erin Beck.

In this tiny mountain town, tourists take a break from city living. But Davis residents say Airbnb rentals are pricing them out

By Erin Beck
Mountain State Spotlight

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In Tucker County, the over-a-century-old National Bank of Davis now holds one of several shops on the main street in Davis, where locals sell West Virginian artwork and wares to visiting tourists. 

The three-story building was erected during the heyday of the logging industry at the turn of the 20th century. But after much of the woods had been clear-cut and industry declined, Tucker County embraced a way to bring workers and money there instead — tourism. 

Tourism and Davis have been intertwined for decades, but as more tourists have flocked to the town in recent years, housing options have increasingly become short-term rentals through Airbnb and Vrbo, pricing out year-round residents. Townspeople are torn — they understand the area relies on tourism but say affordable housing is now hard to find. 

Vanessa Shaffer, who just completed her first year of online college, works at a coffee shop on the same street as the bank building, William Avenue.

In between serving lattes and muffins, she said that she wants to stay local, but there aren’t many jobs and housing prices are on the rise.

“There’s no room for growth for me here,” she said. “It makes everything around here really expensive. There’s not a lot of housing left for locals.” 

Only about 600 people live in Davis, but the population increases when visitors come to hike, ski or mountain bike. 

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Alan Tomson said the town grew as people in cramped cities searched for peace and quiet and the high-elevation, outdoor breeze of West Virginia’s Canaan Valley. He said that growth continues today.

And part of the area’s charm, according to Tomson, is the sense of close-knit community.

To find a balance, the Davis Town Council presented an ordinance that would have limited the number of short-term rentals to 24 within a small residential area. That’s about how many operate there now. There would be no cap in the business area, mainly William Avenue, as well as in areas with HOAs, according to Tomson. 

“The workforce was struggling to find places to live, and businesses were struggling to find the workers because they didn’t have a place to live,” he said. 

On Saturday, voters soundly rejected the ordinance, including the short-term rental cap, 115-80. 

The mayor said that to restrict short-term rentals, the ordinance legally needed commercial and residential zoning as well, and that some people may have thought zoning requirements would prohibit new construction on their property, or that people thought the city was trying to eliminate Airbnbs.

He said he expects city officials will implement a new ordinance with zoning restrictions more clearly stated within the next year. Although it would still limit short-term rentals, he said residents could petition for another vote to prevent the ordinance from taking effect. 

But he also said the city worked with a lender to add eight housing units around two years ago, and he understands why people chose to do short-term rentals.

“We’ve had prospective buyers of houses in Davis say that if I can’t do an Airbnb, I can’t afford to pay the mortgage,” he said.

Residents feel the housing squeeze

On the streets of Davis, it’s a flat, easy walk between restaurants and shops selling items like West Virginia-made candles, soaps, oils, clothing, glass, jewelry and art, as well as state memorabilia.

The set-up is convenient for a short excursion, or to linger in shops, ask for directions and pick up travel guides and town history brochures at the visitors bureau.

And just a short drive away, tourists find more challenging terrain for skiing, mountain biking and hiking. Visitors can see the sun rise over ancient rolling mountains, and hear the sound of a roaring river plunging 60 feet down at Blackwater Falls. 

But as people from places like Washington, D.C. and surrounding states bought property for weekend getaways and rented them out as short-term rentals, some renters say they’ve been priced out because landlords can make more money renting to visitors.

At the Shop ’n Save, cashier Loman Day said he was paying about $1,000 a month for an apartment no bigger than the 10 by 20 foot cigarette section he stood in. Utility bills up to $500 in the winter were drowning him.

“$1,000 a month is ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re in Colorado.”

Now, he’s moved to a cheaper place and said the owner makes much more money renting his old apartment as an Airbnb.

Jessica Luscombe, owner of The Wandering Caravan, which sells goods like clothing, tote bags and jewelry, said that Airbnb owners aren’t making bank like some may think. 

Instead of a tug of war between locals and tourists, she says the struggle’s real roots are the rising costs and stagnant incomes of the middle class.

She moved there after a divorce, and she said it isn’t easy work running her store and her three Airbnbs, located in the same building. 

“I crawled out of poverty after my divorce and created two successful businesses,” she said.

And she said some of the townspeople who are “raising pitchforks” may experience sudden financial struggles like she did and realize it would help to rent a room as an Airbnb.

“The timber industry is gone, coal’s on its way out, and so I’m just thankful to be able to make a living,” she said.

Tourism grows Tucker County’s economy

Tourism is the main economic driver in the area, according to Jessica Waldo, executive director of the Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is funded by hotel/motel taxes, in part from short-term rentals. 

“Just the local community itself would not be able to support all of these businesses, so we need the folks to come in and visit the area to support all of these entrepreneurs that are living in our community,” she said. 

As traditional industries like coal decline, the state has pushed even harder than in years past for more tourism to West Virginia. 

State officials have seen an increase in the need for short-term rentals as it’s invested in tourism, said Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby in an email. 

But she said that the number of those rentals available has increased as well.

“It’s been incredible to watch as this lodging type has provided a new revenue stream to so many communities across the state,” she said.  

Ruby also mentioned the BUILD WV tax credit program, which incentivizes developers to build in areas that need more housing.

In Davis, Pete Johnson, a software entrepreneur from D.C., is working on a housing project and wants to retire in the area. The homes in construction are in a part of town that wouldn’t have been affected by the proposed cap. 

To him, bringing short-term visitors helps Davis in the long run.

He noted that as a longstanding tourist destination, Tucker County offered rentals for short stays in the past too, even if they weren’t Airbnbs. 

He wants to see more visitors be able to stay in the commercial dining and shopping area, where they’d be more likely to get to know their neighbors than on the outskirts of town. Then, they may move there in retirement and spend money locally, or bring their own businesses to the area. 

“And then eventually you look at the economy and it’s not 99% tourism,” he said.

One sunny but crisp morning this week, dozens of people trekked up and down more than 200 steps to see Blackwater Falls.

Judy Kidd, from Flushing, Ohio, frequently visits the area and this time, she brought extended family. They were staying at an Airbnb in Davis for four days. 

“My daughter brought me here three years ago for Mother’s Day,” Kidd said. “That was my Mother’s Day gift, and that’s what started it all. Next year, I think we’re going to go to New River Gorge.”

The family said that West Virginia can bring to mind negative stereotypes, but through visiting, they’ve fallen in love.

The night before, the family watched the sun disappear behind the mountains as dusk fell and stars began to light up the clear night sky.

Pilar, 10, wasn’t too excited about the trip at first. 

“When I first came here, I thought it was gonna be really small and, like, not a lot of stuff around,” she said. “But the scenery is really pretty around here.”

Reach reporter Erin Beck at erin@mountainstatespotlight.org

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