Boston Mulling Airbnb Regulations, Won’t Fine Hosts in Meantime

SAN ANSELMO, CA - APRIL 21: The Airbnb website is displayed on a laptop on April 21, 2014 in San Anselmo, California. Online home-rental marketplace Airbnb Inc. is about to receive more than $450 million in investments from a group led by private-equity firm TPG. The new investments will value the startup at $10 billion, significantly higher than some publicly traded hotel chains. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Airbnb allows users to rent other users’ homes for short amounts of time.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The City of Boston has instructed its Inspectional Services Department not to fine residents who rent out their homes using short-term vacation booking services like Airbnb while the city considers whether to further regulate such services.

Online services like Airbnb—which is valued at $10 billion and is considered a hallmark of the “sharing economy”—allow users to rent out their homes at a rate of their choosing to travelers. The appeal to the traveler is an experience that is more authentic to the locale than a hotel, and sometimes cheaper as well. The service has faced some regulatory battles in other cities and states, who allege Airbnb hosts operate illegal hotels.

The memo sent to Boston’s ISD staff from ISD Commissioner William Christopher does not say definitively that Boston will take any regulatory action. Rather, it says that Boston “is currently examining how these services fit within our existing zoning and permitting definitions and whether new or amended regulations are warranted to address these specific arrangements.”

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Melina Schuler, a spokesperson for Mayor Martin Walsh, says the city will look to “other cities’ practices as a starting point, and expects to have some recommendations this fall.”

In the meantime, Airbnb hosts don’t need to worry about being found in violation of city regulations. However, while Boston’s directive not to fine users may make for a change in policy, it’s not a big change in terms of action. ISD has not previously cited a building violation related to Airbnb rentals, Schuler says.

The city does not currently have regulations on the books that specifically address these sorts of services. But existing rental and lodging regulations would appear to cover them.

Julie Gould, a real estate attorney with Boston firm Looney & Grossman, says Boston’s ordinances would currently suggest that anybody renting their home through services like Airbnb or its competitor VRBO would need to register with the city to rent out a dwelling, which costs $25 and involves an annual $15 renewal, as well as an inspection every five years in many cases.

That section of Boston’s municipal code is referenced on Airbnb’s own page telling prospective hosts about their local regulations.

Looking to Boston’s existing regulations, Airbnb also suggests hosts in Boston register for a lodging house license if they intend to host four or more people ($75 per year for lodging house offering less than 10 rooms), register as a business ($65), and pay hotel taxes. However, it’s probably a fair bet that many Airbnb hosts do not follow those recommendations, in Boston or in other cities.

Airbnb’s recommendations are consistent with a separate memo from the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services that suggested municipalities should regulate Airbnb hosts like bed and breakfast services. That opinion was referenced in the ISD memo.

A quick search of Airbnb’s website showed several hundred rentals currently available in Boston. Airbnb’s search system is a bit finicky, but 870 results popped up when I told the system not to process results from Brookline, Somerville, or Cambridge. That search might not have been perfect.

Airbnb recently agreed to pay hotel taxes in San Francisco, and to hand over user data—but not identities, at least for now—to New York State in its hunt for users in violation of law.

The ISD memo is embedded below.

ISD_Short Term Dwelling Unit Rental Memo

And the DPH memo:

410-Licensing of Online Home Rental Services 5-16-14 (2)