War on Airbnb regulations in Boston continues to escalate
It was a largely civil debate — at least compared to lawsuits and loud protests over similar issues in cities like New York and Los Angeles — until last week. Then industry giant Airbnb sent an email to thousands of Boston guests criticizing Wu — who has pushed for tougher restrictions on short-term rentals — and saying she’s “aligned with the interests of the big hotels against the interests of ordinary Bostonians”.
The surge that followed, including frowns from city hall and scathing reviews of Airbnb on social media, highlights a debate with high stakes for the city and its landlords.
On one side are neighborhood groups, housing activists and members of the city’s powerful Hospitality Workers’ Union, who generally advocate for stricter regulation. On the other side are Airbnb and its small army of “hosts,” as well as a growing industry of short-term rental operators and service providers who fear they will be encumbered if the stricter rules on the table come into force.
In the middle seat Walsh and the city council. They weigh a tight housing market and anxious neighbors against the desire to keep Boston open to an increasingly popular form of lodging, which helps bring tourists — and their wallets — to some of the less traveled neighborhoods in the city.
“The most important thing for the mayor is that we preserve housing,” said Joyce Linehan, Walsh’s chief policy officer. “But there is a lot at stake. This industry is very profitable and very popular. Users love it. So there are advocates on all sides arguing for their cause.
There were standing hearings only after Walsh filed new rules with the city council in January. Unite Here Local 26, which represents hospitality workers and has close ties to many of the city’s elected officials, brought in its members in force.
But so has Airbnb, which has encouraged hosts to come forward and talk about what renting on the service has meant to them. Lesser-known — and fewer — groups like a coalition of short-term rental hosts have hired lobbyists and public relations experts to champion their cause.
Even Stop Child Predators, a Washington, DC-based group that lobbies for laws to protect against sexual abuse, weighed in with press releases pushing for tougher regulations, implying the risk unknown tenants pose to neighbors.
Given competing interests and the complexity of regulating a new industry, Walsh withdrew the bill before the Board voted on it, but his aides say he plans to file a new version soon.
Wu, meanwhile, called some of AirBnB’s claims “fake news”, and its supporters lambasted the company for spreading false information to townspeople.
This debate over short-term rentals has been playing out across the country as cities grapple with how to regulate the industry. Airbnb and the hospitality industry have funded economic studies and fueled grassroots political campaigns to promote their vision for the future of the industry, and they have become experienced sparring partners.
But each city has unique dynamics, said Will Burns, a former Chicago alderman who now directs public policy for Airbnb. This makes the rules and the flavor of the debate a little different each time.
“It really depends on what city you’re in,” Burns said, noting that some cities are most concerned about potential safety issues with short-term rentals, others quality of life, others l housing supply. “All of these cities have different concerns.”
In Boston, the debate has largely centered on the impact of short-term rentals on one of the country’s most expensive housing markets.
The Walsh administration estimates that more than 2,000 apartments in Boston have effectively been taken off the market to be used as full-time short-term rentals – a number of disputes with Airbnb. City officials have proposed capping many apartments at 90 short-term rental nights per year, an attempt to limit what they call “de facto hotels” while allowing residents to rent a spare room or, sometimes, their entire apartment.
Airbnb says it would accept such rules, as long as its guests can still rent out their spare rooms. Burns wouldn’t say how firm a cap would be.
Either way, the idea has another slice of the industry worried – people who have gotten into the business of managing, cleaning and fixing short-term rentals – and they’re also trying to make their voices heard.
“We’re kind of the forgotten bunch,” said Kama Cicero, a real estate agent who manages around 30 short-term rentals for their owners. “We are not the owners. Nor are we someone who buys a building and turns it into a hotel.
A tight annual cap would hamper short-term rental activity, said Cicero, who joined with other hosts and providers to create the Boston Host Alliance, which also lobbies city hall, separately from Airbnb. The new rules would kill jobs, she said, and make it difficult to provide a valuable service. After all, she pointed out, people were coming to Boston for long stays to work and study at the area’s many hospitals and universities and needed a place to stay long before Airbnb provided fuel. rocket to industry.
“That’s the kind of clientele we welcome,” Cicero said in a recent interview. “Families who come to Boston, sometimes for a while, and can’t afford a hotel all the time.”
City officials say they’re trying to craft a policy that takes into account all the downsides of short-term rentals, while protecting the housing market. And they’re keeping tabs on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers aim to complete their own bill this summer to address taxes and other rules for short-term rentals statewide.
Linehan said the Walsh administration would introduce a new bill for the city, likely in a few weeks, and send it back to council for even more debate.
It’s good with Josh Zakim. The Back Bay councilman said he’s heard a lot about residents wanting consistent rules and standards, and people wanting short-term rentals to survive in one form or another. Both sides, he said, have good points.
“It’s been a pretty reasonable conversation,” Zakim said. “Until last week.”