City council puts restraints on Airbnb

Industry slams measure for cutting commercial units, rental caps

THE BOSTON CITY COUNCIL overwhelmingly approved tough new restrictions on short-term rentals offered by companies such as Airbnb and HomeAway, eliminating investor-owned units from the marketplace while allowing owner-occupied, two- and three-family homeowners to rent out some of their units year-round.

The council on Wednesday made some minor adjustments to a proposal by Mayor Marty Walsh before approving it 11-2, with only Councilors Frank Baker of Dorchester and Mark Ciommo from Allston-Brighton voting against the ordinance.

Walsh indicated he would sign the measure.

Despite Council President Andrea Campbell predicting at the outset that “there will be some fireworks,” the amendments, speeches, and votes held relatively little drama. The most animated discussion came during an amendment by Councilor Matt O’Malley of West Roxbury to remove a provision that would allow owner-occupied homes to rent out adjacent units in their building 365 days a year. The proposal by Walsh capped that limit at 120 days a year. The new ordinance would also limit owners of condos and single-family homes to rent out their primary residence for 120 days.

“There is a possibility without the cap that we will end up with these horizontal hotels,” said At-Large Councilor Michelle Wu, one of the more outspoken critics of the spread of the home-sharing industry.

The amendment failed, 7-6, leaving the year-round allowance in place. But the biggest issue was eliminating the flood of investor-owned units, which housing advocates said were siphoning affordable housing off the city’s already-tight long-term rental market.

“I am voting in favor of this [bill] so neighborhoods like Chinatown can remain a neighborhood,” said City Councilor Edward Flynn of South Boston.

Walsh, in January, offered a proposal that would have allowed investor units but capped how many units a company could have on the market and how many days those units could be rented. In the face of impending defeat amid opposition by Wu and other councilors, Walsh withdrew his proposal and submitted a revised version that eliminated the rental of investor-owned units completely.

“My goal in regulating short-term rentals has always been to responsibly incorporate the growth of the home-share industry into our work to create affordable housing for all by striking a fair balance between preserving housing while still allowing Bostonians to benefit from this new industry,” Walsh said in a statement following the council vote. “I look forward to signing this legislation and I am committed to monitoring the impacts to ensure it serves its intended purpose in our neighborhoods.”

The council’s action drew strong rebukes from the industry, which agreed with taxing the rentals but balked at caps and the prohibition on commercial units.

“For two years Airbnb and our Boston hosts have worked closely with the mayor and members of the City Council to share helpful data and collaborate on fair home sharing policy,” Airbnb spokeswoman Crystal Davis said in a statement. “Today’s disappointing vote is proof that our community’s feedback and concerns were not heard. The new ordinance unfortunately creates a system that violates the privacy of our hosts, and prevents Boston families from making much-needed extra income in one of the country’s most expensive cities.”

A spokesman for HomeAway, which also owns the online vacation rental app VRBO, said the company will continue to work with city officials as data becomes available from the rental industry, but said in the meantime, the new regulations will have a devastating impact on the city’s visitor business.

“This vote will have dangerous consequences for Boston’s travel and tourism economy,” spokesman Philip Minardi said in a statement. “By banning most traditional vacation rentals—which have welcomed families to Boston for generations—the council has effectively closed the door to families who prefer to stay together under one roof while visiting. Unfortunately, this has not been a fact-based process. As a result, many local homeowners and businesses will be harmed.”

The short-term rental unit industry has been growing quickly around the country, especially in Massachusetts. State and local officials have been slow to enact a regulatory regime. The Legislature has still not passed a bill to set up a taxation and regulatory framework for the industry; different versions passed by the House and Senate are awaiting a conference committee compromise.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Boston’s new ordinance sets an annual registration fee ranging from $25 for single-room rentals to $200 for full home and owner-occupied units. The measure also mandates data collection on number and length of stays as well as other information that will help officials tweak the law down the line.