Neighborhood and City officials are cheering a change to the Zoning Code this month that closed a loophole attempting to be exploited by many short-term rental companies hoping to evade the City’s new regulations on the industry.
The Zoning Commission on Jan. 8, in a unanimous vote, approved a text amendment to the Zoning Codes – allowing “Executive Suites” to fall under the same community and Zoning Board process as all short-term rentals.
Chris English, a policy advisor for the Mayor’s Office, said when the short-term rental (also known as AirBNB) regulations were crafted, the City felt that Executive Suites already existed in the zoning code and were more of a commercial use – and so they left them unaddressed when passing new, more residential based, short-term regulations.
Then they began to see the floodgates open.
“As our lawsuit with AirBNB ended and we started our enforcement of short-term regulations, we started to see an uptick of applications for Executive Suite conversions,” said English. “A handful of them were approved by right. They actually moved forward with a simple paperwork change. We saw in the end of August and in September that the same group of applicants were trying to convert a large number of units to Executive Suites. We figured this was the loophole that they were trying to exploit to get around our short-term regulations.”
Those Executive Suites were first noticed by the Boston Sun last summer when residents of some of the newer buildings – including 345 Harrison – reported that there were guests staying one or two nights in what were meant to be apartments. In that case, a company called Churchill Living had leased out a block of regular apartments and were renting them out similar to a hotel. The same thing was happening just down the block from that building by a company called Sonder.
As that process continued, and more executive suites were converted, English said the administration, City Council and concerned community members worked hard to close the loophole.
With about 200 units in the process of conversion on Jan. 8, the Zoning Commission passed its new regulations that would give the community warning and input before any Suites could be converted by corporate short-term rental companies.
“We had about 200 or so units in the application process at the time of the Zoning Commission vote,” said English. “Now, all of those will have to go through a neighborhood process and go through the Zoning Board of Appeal if they want to move forward.”
Councilor Ed Flynn, whose district in the South End and Chinatown has been disproportionately impacted by the Executive Suite situation, said applicants would now have to come to community meetings, and then move on the ZBA with or without the blessing of the neighbors. That, he said, is a protection that will help to preserve quality of life and keep living units in place for families and residents – not out of town rental agencies.
“Before the amendment, the Zoning Code for some neighborhoods allowed units by right to be converted to Executive Suites without a community process,” he said. “The new amendment would require community input. It’s about quality of life for residents and not about these companies. I think it’s a victory for the neighborhoods, and it brought neighbors together and they demanded input and advocated for their position. I’m proud to have worked with the neighbors and neighborhood associations. I give them a lot of credit because this is important. A lot of good people, longtime residents, immigrant communities, and low-income residents could have been displaced because of this loophole.”
Already it seems to be having an effect.
On Tuesday night, Sonder representatives were to be before the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association (BFSNA) for discussion of a proposal to convert units in the neighborhood. Sonder wanted to convert 14 of 40 existing rental apartments at 601 Albany St. to Executive Suite short-term rentals. It was one of the many requests that are before the City and within the new process.
Sonder’s Gregg Klein and Zoning Attorney Matt Eckel had been on the agenda to explain their proposal and the timeline for the conversion – which also would have had to make a trip to the ZBA.
However, Sonder pulled their proposal last Friday, said President David Stone.
“They are now reconsidering the proposal and whether to go forward with their project,” he said on Tuesday night.
The Sun also revisited the 345 Harrison situation this week.
In an unsolicited e-mail from Churchill, the company was touting nightly rentals once again at 345 Harrison. The rate was as low as $130 a night, with access to some amenities, including parking and some of the fitness room. Pets were encouraged.
However, after trying to book the room for a two-night stay in late January, a leasing agent wrote the Sun that they could no longer schedule stays for less than 30 days.
“Thank you for your request,” read the e-mail. “I am sorry, but in Boston we will need to book all stays for 30 days. Have a great weekend!”
It was not readily apparent what the enforcement status was for the Churchill units at 345 Harrison, but the City encourages residents to report all suspected illegal short-term rentals or Executive Suites. The City said residents who have questions or concerns about any potential short-term rental unit are encouraged to contact 311 so that the Inspectional Services Department is notified.