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City might pass Airbnb ordinance

Regulations on short-term rentals aim to discourage investor units

Karen Morales

As the Boston City Council prepares to deliberate over Mayor Martin Walsh’s recently filed ordinance to regulate short-term rental units, a coalition of housing advocates considers whether the proposed guidelines are enough to curtail the home-share industry’s negative effects on affordable housing.

Walsh’s ordinance calls for classifying and registering each short-term rental unit in the city, as well as implementing deterrents for investors and property owners to keep from monopolizing housing units, which can result in higher rent prices.

In some instances, investors have rented out whole buildings or units solely to customers through Airbnb or other similar services, with per-night rentals, a more profitable strategy than a regular lease where a tenant pays on a monthly basis.

“This ordinance is an important step towards our goal of reducing housing costs by creating disincentives to taking units off the market for use as short-term rentals,” said Walsh in a statement. “It also allows for the continued use of short-term rentals in scenarios that are non-disruptive to our neighborhoods and support our tourism industry.”

Classification

The regulations classify three different types of permissible short-rental units: a limited share unit, a home share unit and an investor unit.

A limited share unit consists of a private room or shared space in the host’s primary residence, in which they are present during the rental. Hosts would have to pay an annual fee of $25 to the city.

A home share unit is a whole unit available for rental at the owner’s primary residence where he or she lives in for at least nine months out of the year. There is a fee of $100 a year for this type of rental.

And lastly, an investor unit is an entire unit that is non-owner- and non-tenant-occupied. Owners of an investor unit have to pay an annual fee of $500 to the city and can only offer the investor unit for 90 consecutive or nonconsecutive days out of the year.

Not enough

However, Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust, would prefer that the city not allow any investor units at all, and instead adopted an ordinance similar to the one passed in Cambridge that regulates short-term rental units to just one single host.

Last August, the Cambridge City Council voted to require short-term rental hosts to live in the same or an adjacent building. The new rule will take effect in April.

“The problem with only proposing a 90-day limit [for investor units] is that it’s impossible to enforce because there are so many different platforms like Airbnb that a short term rental can utilize,” said Lowe. “Which is one of the reasons we favor a simpler approach of one host, one home.”

This approach, Lowe said, would stay true to home-sharing’s original intent as “an alternative approach to tourism, to rent a room in somebody’s home when they are there or on vacation for a more neighborhood feeling.”

She added, “And as a way for people to make a little money on the side, but not to take whole buildings and whole units off the permanent housing market.”

Members of the CCLT, the Chinese Progressive Association and the Chinatown Resident Association have tried to track the number of short-term rental units in their neighborhood. One resident, Lowe said, “has estimated through his search online that there are at least 100 units on any given day advertised in Chinatown.”

Lowe said that residents have seen a growing presence in the last year-and-a-half of short-term rental units in the neighborhood. She cited as an example “four or five buildings that we notice people coming in and out with suitcases and have keypads on door instead of regular locks.”

Limited housing

Advocates with the Fenway Community Development Corporation are also in support of short-term rental regulations, especially the one host, one home rule.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, community organizer for Fenway CDC, said she believes it’s the right first step for the city to distinguish between individual and investor units and to track where Airbnb is happening.

“Our vision is that [because] we have a housing crisis in Boston and limited supply, they should disallow multi-unit owners to use Airbnb, which is the category that has the greatest effect on the market,” she said.

Fitzpatrick said that in addition to Airbnb, units are also listed with corporate short stay companies, which have been increasingly prevalent in areas such as the Fenway.

These companies, such as Compass Corporate Housing LLC and Churchill Corporate Housing, cater to visitors who come to Boston on business.

Effect on rent

The Fenway CDC has estimated through online listings on multiple websites that there are about 2,000 corporate short-stay units that are marketed to business travelers in Boston.

Both CCLT and Fenway CDC are a part of the Welcome Home Coalition of housing organizations from different neighborhoods in Massachusetts who have been calling for stricter regulations on short-term rentals.

A 2016 study conducted by UMass Boston, which the ordinance cites as one of the reasons to regulate, found a 0.4 percent increase in rent prices in Boston in correlation with an increase in the Airbnb listings. And recently, the ShareBetter Coalition, a group of New York City housing and tenant advocacy organizations, found that annually, Airbnb takes 13,500 rental units from the long-term rental market, and by reducing the housing supply, has caused a $384 annual increase in rent for the average New York tenant.

“We’re looking forward to further discussion with the council and public about this policy,” said Lowe.

On Feb. 13, a city council committee hearing on the short-term rental unit ordinance will take place in the Iannella Chamber in Boston City Hall at 10 a.m. Members of the public are encouraged to attend and testify.