Chinatown residents protest short-term rentals

Says commercial operations driving up rents, squeezing residents

RESIDENTS MARCHED through the streets of Chinatown to the Massachusetts State House on Thursday to protest a short-term rental industry that they say is squeezing out residents of the downtown community. Short-term rental services such as Airbnb have become increasingly popular among tourists in the city as an affordable lodging alternative to pricier hotels. But housing advocates say the industry boom in Chinatown has caused an insurgence of private companies buying up cheap units in the neighborhood specifically to turn them into online short-term rental units.

A quick look on the Airbnb website shows there are more than 300 rental units available in Boston alone. One community organization discovered more than 100 short-term rental postings available on Airbnb for the Chinatown neighborhood were posted under limited liability companies instead of individual homeowners.

“Tenants that we know are telling us there are people staying here from week to week, strangers and different people coming in and out all the time,” said Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust and one of the speakers at the Chinatown rally.

The surge in short-term rental living has worsened Chinatown’s already high housing costs. Landlords are hiking up rent fees thanks to the growing real estate demand, and property owners who do not live in the area are now selling their property at higher price tags. Old brick rowhouses in Chinatown, which used to sell for $700,000 due to their dilapidated state, Lowe said, can now be put up for $2 million.

“Chinatown is not just for entertainment, people live here. Real, hard-working people,” said Melissa Lo, who was born in Chinatown. “For some it may be transient, but for a lot of others it’s home.” Most residents, she said, were not opposed to short-term rental businesses, so long as there were policies in place to regulate them.

A handful of proposals for taxation of short-term rental services have emerged this year, including one proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker calling for  a 5.7 percent tax rate, the same as the state’s hotel tax rate. Homeowners who use the online booking service to pocket additional income have opposed the tax proposal, arguing the rate is too high for individuals providing short-term rental services infrequently.

Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston filed a bill in March that divides rental hosts into three different tiers, which would result in different tax rates based on size of operation – 4 percent levied to “residential host,” 8 percent for “commercial host,” and 5.7 percent for a “professionally managed host.” The bill also proposed a slew of regulatory measures, including granting cities and towns the authority to add their own policies for short-term rentals as seen fit. Lowe of  the Chinatown Community Land Trust said her organization supports Michlewitz’s proposal despite its broad terms.

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Natasha Ishak

Editorial Intern, CommonWealth magazine

About Natasha Ishak

Natasha Ishak is the editorial intern at CommonWealth magazine. Her duties include reporting and writing on the latest policy issues happening on Beacon Hill.

Before arriving at CommonWealth Magazine, she worked as a digital intern under NOVA/PBS at WGBH. She was a reporter in her hometown of Jakarta for four years, writing up stories at The Jakarta Post - Indonesia's oldest leading English-language daily, and as a production assistant on the popular news program, the Indonesia Morning Show.

Now in her second year pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Emerson College, she hopes to shed light on marginalized communities through stories related to politics, immigration, social justice and the environment.

About Natasha Ishak

Natasha Ishak is the editorial intern at CommonWealth magazine. Her duties include reporting and writing on the latest policy issues happening on Beacon Hill.

Before arriving at CommonWealth Magazine, she worked as a digital intern under NOVA/PBS at WGBH. She was a reporter in her hometown of Jakarta for four years, writing up stories at The Jakarta Post - Indonesia's oldest leading English-language daily, and as a production assistant on the popular news program, the Indonesia Morning Show.

Now in her second year pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Emerson College, she hopes to shed light on marginalized communities through stories related to politics, immigration, social justice and the environment.

“Rep. Michlewitz recognizes what Boston really needs and what smaller towns might need are not the same, so we understand why it’s proposed in a broad context. We’re supporting Rep. Michlewitz’s statewide bill, but we’re also calling for a specific city ordinance for Boston in terms of providing proof of primary residency by the rental host,” Lowe said. “We want a one host-one rental policy.”

According to Lowe, the policy would allow property owners to rent out their primary residence to earn extra income and prevent big companies from buying out housing units to sell off as rentals.