Community Speaks Out About Short-Term Rental Enforcement

The Boston City Council held a hearing regarding updates on the implementation of the Short-Term Rental Ordinance on November 14. Sponsored by Councilors Ed Flynn, Lydia Edwards, and Michelle Wu, the hearing provided information about the ordinance as well as allowed the City Council to hear feedback from the community about how the ordinance affects them.

“I think this is a check-in hearing about how the ordinance that we passed is going,” Edwards said. “This is a conversation about how to make this the most effective short-term rental ordinance. that we can have in the City of Boston. We want to have updates and this is about how we’re going to work together to really bring it to fruition in the City of Boston.”

Last year, the City decided to place regulations on short-term rentals in order to protect the housing stock, Edwards continued. The ordinance prevents corporate investor units from existing while still allowing homeowners to earn supplemental income by renting out units in their property.  “Since then, the city has been working to implement the ordinance and resolve a legal challenge,” she said. “As we recall, the ordinance passed in June of 2018, our registration requirement began in January of 2019, our legal settlement with Airbnb was in August of 2019. Notably, we allowed a one-year period for businesses to conclude existing contracts, but no investor units should now be operating.”

The hearing was used to try to obtain answers to questions such as addressing loopholes In the ordinance, the existence of a reporting mechanism for illegal short term units, and how the city address corporate entities who want variances to operate short term rentals, among other things.

City Councilor Josh Zakim said that he’d like to thank the civic associations “who have really led the charge, particularly in some of our downtown neighborhoods that felt a lot of the brunt of the short-term rentals.”

Many residents across the city are fed up with the number of short term rentals that have seemed to pop up in recent years. John Bookston of the Fenway Civic Association said that he brought up to the mayor in 2014 the fact that “Airbnb rentals were not longer home sharing,” but rather “an invasive species taking over monthly rental units in the downtown area,” he said.

Elliott Laffer of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) said that “the important thing to remember, I think, is when people talk about Airbnb and what causes great concern” is that they are acting as hotels “in places where hotels aren’t supposed to be.” Laffer agreed with Bookston by saying that that short-term rental units affect the residential housing stock, as well as “who’s wandering around our block.” He also noted that there is often no staff onsite to take care of the needs of the guests. He thanked the Council for the work they’ve done on this issue, and urged that it now be enforced.

Dave Goggins, former Vice President of The North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association, agreed that there should be an importance placed on enforcement when it comes to this issue. “It’s important that we identify who the biggest offenders are,” he said. “[Inspectional Services Department (ISD)] is relying on the public to identify where these violations are taking place,” and he was happy to know that the 311 app will have a designated spot for reporting illegal units this coming December, when short-term rental units must be registered with the city, and over 1,500 apartments are expected to go back on the market after this takes effect.

However, the council also learned that several short-term rental operators are negatively impacted by this ordinance and are not happy about the rules being out into place. One such operator, who did not want to divulge the name of her company, told the council that she believes they “completely missed the mark” with the ordinance. While she said she agrees that de facto hotels and master leases are not the way to go,” you hurt a lot of people,” she told the  council.

She said she believes the council “could have met us a quarter of the way,” as she believes this ordinance helps “big hotel unions,” who were “told to lobby against short-term rentals.” She believes that operators should be allowed to have a “small percentage” of the building be short-term rental, for example, if there are 10 units in the building, one should be allowed to be a short-term rental unit. This, she believes, would help people that own buildings earn more revenue. 

“You didn’t hear form any of us on the other end,” she said, because “we were too scared to talk and meet.” She said that when she called ISD the other day, nobody could answer her questions. “It’s extremely sad because you could have come up with something that didn’t hurt everybody the way you did,” she said. She said her company operated about 70 short-term until in total—both inside and outside the city—and never more than two units in any building. Due to the new ordinance, she said they are now down to 30 compliant units.”

“We need to continue hearing from everyone on this,” Councilor Wu said. “It’s difficult to make decisions that involve tradeoffs,” but she said that it is “valuable” to hear from people whose lives have been affected due to the ordinance.

Another Airbnb host said that her employees are “scared because they depend on this income.” She also said that this business is not easy, and short-term rentals are helpful in the medical industry for people who need to come into the city and stay for a short while near a hospital. “I wish you guys could listen to the little guys,” she said. “Otherwise it’s just going to hurt the city and all these people are going to lost their jobs and people aren’t going to feel welcomed.”

Dion Irish, Inspectional Services Department Commissioner, said that he’s “happy to report that we’re in full enforcement mode.” He said that they are staffed and have a “great team” in place to handle the enforcement of this ordinance. “I do want to just note that we have folks who have been deeply rooted in this market so consistent enforcement is going to be required in order to get full compliance.”

Irish said that since the Sept. 1 sunset period, enforcement efforts have been launched. Prior to that, warning notices were issued, but that has now turned into the issuance of over 370 fines which Irish said amounts to about $75,000 for 190 properties. About 612 approvals have been made so far, but only 537 registrations have been issued. He said the reason for the discrepancy is that some operators have not made their payment yet.

“We’ve had some folks who have responded by discontinuing their offering on short-term rental platforms,” Irish said, and “about a dozen operators who have requested hearings.” Additionally, he said that attorneys are in conversation with large operators in the city who have been renting out units in multiple buildings across the city.

“We are currently taking complaints,” and have been for some time now, Irish added. He said he encourages people to call 311 or sent ISD an email with any complaints regarding the short-term rental ordinance.

Edwards said that “this is a unique conversation where…when we passed this law, it was a heated conversation, it was controversial at the time, but currently it is the law so the debate about whether we like it or not is one conversation. The other one, which is what the point of this conversation was, is to check in on how it will actually work…”

She said that she wants to make sure that people are aware the as of Dec. 1, unregistered units will be removed and that “every possible avenue” is used to make sure operators know about this deadline.

Edwards also said that she believes it’s “important to address the argument abut the business model and there should have been a carveout.” She said that Airbnb was meant as a source of additional income for homeowners who needed help paying their mortgage, not as a small business entity where employees traveled around the city cleaning up different units and preparing them for the next guests. “It did become that, and as a result for many people, they feel very hurt financially by this kind of regulation,” Edwards said. “But the goal for myself and for many of my colleagues was to bring it back to the original goal of side income…”

She said that Airbnb and other short-term rentals were not intended to support a business model that she does not feel “has been thoroughly vetted by the community,” but she said she does believe that warrants a separate conversation to see what that type of small business model might look like in Boston, and how it could be regulated. “It may not be in this ordinance,” she said, but that does not mean it cannot ever exist.

This ordinance passed by the city was not meant to target these small business owners, Edwards continued, “because of the abuse of other large entities and downright attacks on my colleagues from Airbnb, there was a response that was necessary from the City of Boston,” she said. She said she looks forward to working wit everyone involved with this issue, and though the law is in place, the city will continue to check in with the community about how it is working. “I have felt that we’ve grown and will will grow and do better,” she said. “This conversation is not over.”

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