Xenophobia May Ruin Your Next Vacation

Christopher Hallen Comments

A recent Tahoe Daily Tribune op-ed piece referred to vacation home renters as “strangers staying next door.” The same piece expressed worry over “[u]nfamiliar faces” staying down the street.

The above excerpts were posted online during the Measure T campaign in South Lake Tahoe, California this fall. Part of Measure T sought to ban vacation home rentals in South Lake Tahoe’s residential neighborhoods after three years. Specifically, the ban focuses on homes rented for 30 days or less marketed by companies like Airbnb and Expedia. And unfortunately, last month, Measure T passed.

Measure T supporters complained about partying, trash, and parking issues from vacation home rentals. These issues motivated many voters to vote for Measure T to ban short-term vacation rentals. However, these exact same complaints could easily justify banning long term rentals as well.  

Neighbors do have remedies if problems arise from short or long term rental occupants. First, aggrieved neighbors can contact Airbnb to discuss their grievances and seek out a resolution.  Second, neighbors can call the cops if unlawful activity is occurring. And third, aggrieved neighbors can sue.

But there’s something deeper going on here. Something darker, something very human: xenophobia. The Tahoe Daily Tribune article excerpt above mentioned “[u]nfamiliar faces” and “strangers staying next door.” Now, if we take a moment to try to understand the deeper feelings of some of the residents of South Lake Tahoe who are voting to ban vacation home rentals in South Lake Tahoe neighborhoods, they are not being totally irrational.  

In humanity’s ancestral past, xenophobia made adaptive sense. Ancestral humans used to live in small groups of approximately 50 – 150 people where everyone generally knew one another. If an outsider came by, there was a better than chance odds he had hostile intentions.  

For example, a stranger could be conducting reconnaissance for a future raid, he could be planning to rape a woman who was venturing out to relieve herself, or he could have been planning to capture a child from the community who might make an excellent slave. Indeed, strangers were treated by our ancestors with great suspicion and were often killed.  

Fast forward to the present. Today, the residents of South Lake Tahoe don’t live in tribes like their ancestors did but their tribal instincts – xenophobia specifically – inherited from their ancestors are still alerting them to danger from “[u]nfamiliar faces” and “strangers.” The same xenophobia that kept the ancestors of the residents of South Lake Tahoe and ours safe now seems to have contributed to the voters of South Lake Tahoe passing measure T which will ban vacation home rentals in South Lake Tahoe neighborhoods in three years.

It matters for two reasons.  

First, it is important to know how the opposition thinks in a Sun Tzu “Art of War” kind of way.  To paraphrase Sun Tzu, “If you know your opposition and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”  

Second, advocates of liberty should realize how important private property rights are. Private property rights – the right to rent, sell, or use property however an owner sees fit as long as she doesn’t create a nuisance or violate the rights of others – are important to counter legislation and voters who are vulnerable to xenophobia, racism, or other human instincts that once were useful, adaptive traits but are now arguably maladaptive threats to liberty today.

But there is hope.

Recently, a South Lake Tahoe Property Owners Group filed suit challenging Measure T. A judge issued a temporary restraining order on a portion of Measure T that placed limits on the maximum occupancy of vacation home rentals.

Legal challenges to regulations and/or bans on Airbnb, for example, have had qualified success. Airbnb sued San Francisco before agreeing to a deal to work with the city. And Airbnb has made deals to work with local governments in New Orleans and Chicago. Hopefully, measure T is eventually overturned. Until then, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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