Walsh seeks ordinance to control short-term rentals

Beacon Hill leaders have been unable to find common ground on a short-term housing rental regulation bill and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, apparently unwilling to wait for a new law, is laying out his own rules to govern an industry that's competing with hotels and affecting the city's supply of long-term housing.

"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," Walsh said in a statement Monday.

Walsh said the ordinance he's filing would allow short-term rentals to continue "in scenarios that are non-disruptive" to neighborhoods. The regulations would prohibit the listing of any property with outstanding code violations and require owners to register each rental with the city and pay an annual license fee of $25, $100 or $500 depending on how the unit is classified by the city.

Walsh's ordinance divides rentals into three tiers, differentiating between a space in a primary residence rented while the operator is present, a "home share" in which the entire primary residence is rented, and an "investor unit" that is non-owner and non-tenant occupied.

There would be no annual limit on the number of booked nights for "limited share units" in a primary residence with the operator present, while home shares and investor units would be capped at 90 nights per year.

The mayor's office cited a 2016 UMass Boston study that found a 0.4 percent rise in rent prices due to increasing Airbnb listings.

City Councillor Lydia Edwards, who chairs the council's Housing Committee, called the move to regulate short-term rentals a "welcomed start to a necessary discussion about protecting our housing stock."

"The devastating impact of short-term rentals can be seen city wide, and is exasperated by absentee landlords and multi-unit owners," Edwards said in a statement to the News Service. "I hope we get a balanced approach that returns the short-term rental market back to its original intent of providing supplemental income to residents living at the property and provides a way to hold hosts accountable to their neighbors."

Under the ordinance, booking platforms would be required to submit monthly data and details on location and occupancy numbers to the city to assist with enforcement of the regulations, according to Walsh's office.

State policymakers are grappling with the same questions around the housing market, public safety, and competition with hotels that are subject to the lodging tax as they seek to impose new oversight on the short-term rental market and web platforms like Airbnb, an effort that has stretched on since 2015.

"It's a very complicated issue, and so there is still a lot of nuances to it, and it's not necessarily cut and dry of just do taxes or just do a certain amount of regulations," Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, the House chair of the Financial Services Committee, said last week. "We're trying to find the right balance related to that. I think we'll get there, but it's not there yet."

Michlewitz is the sponsor of a bill (H 3454), which is before his committee, that would require Airbnb hosts and others offering short-term rentals to register with the state, establish a tiered taxation structure, and set health and safety standards for the units.

The Senate has twice passed legislation that would subject short-term rentals to the lodging tax, but leave regulation in the hands of local officials. Sen. Michael Rodrigues told the News Service Thursday that he thinks "the time is right" this session for an Airbnb bill.

"There's lots of pressure from local communities, because they're losing all these local room occupancy tax revenues, and I think people realize that this is pretty simple," the Westport Democrat said.

In Boston, about two-thirds of the hosts listing Airbnb rentals downtown are offering multiple units, according to Ford Cavallari, chairman of the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations.

"What that tells us is we have essentially a market that's moving toward domination by professional hosts, by folks who are trying to do a hotel-like play without necessarily having to conform to hotel-level safety standards, to hotel-level labor standards, and to neighborhood notification that you have to go through, through the zoning process, if you're actually trying to put a hotel in," Cavallari said at a CommonWealth magazine panel Thursday. "And that's causing problems, livability problems, as well as a whole bunch of public service problems like trash collections, snow removal, for most of our downtown neighborhoods and other Boston neighborhoods."

During the panel, Will Burns of Airbnb pushed back against the idea that the proliferation of short-term rentals hinders housing availability and causes displacement.

"It's easy to point to short-term rentals as a cause for the affordable housing crisis in Boston, but the facts just don't bear that out," he said. "Part of it is that millennials have decided to move back into cities, starting in 2000, so you have more people who want to be in cities, so then businesses want to be in cities, because that's where the talent is."