Massachusetts cities seek to regulate short-term rentals

The Public Garden
The Public Garden –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

BOSTON (AP) — It’s a daunting challenge for cities: What happens when too many people fall in love with you and want to move in — even just for a night or two?

The latest version of that question is playing out in Massachusetts cities like Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, which have struggled to wrap their arms around the challenges of short-term rental companies like Airbnb that allow homeowners to rent out a room for a day, week or longer.

Those who use the online services, both to rent out an extra bedroom or book a bedroom for a night or two, see it as a way to make a few extra dollars, or to save money on more expensive lodging.

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But as the popularity of the online rental platforms grows, cities have faced an unanticipated situation: investors buying up homes or condos to rent out by the day or week.

Critics and city officials worry the practice is taking homes off the market that could be used by people who want to live in their communities full-time — exacerbating an already tight housing market and forcing up rents.

Earlier this month, the Boston City Council passed regulations specifically aimed at investors who buy housing units to list on short-term rental platforms.

The regulations, which passed 11-2, would ban investors from renting apartments by the night, but would still let people rent a room in their homes or a spare unit provided they own and live on the property, with some restrictions.

Democratic Boston Mayor Marty Walsh signed the new rules into law, saying his goal has been to strike “fair balance between preserving housing while still allowing Bostonians to benefit from this new industry.”

Boston isn’t alone.

In April, new regulations in Cambridge went into effect covering rentals of less than 30 days. Under the regulations, the operator of the short-term rental has to be either a renter in that unit or the owner of the building.

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The regulations also require an inspection of the property before a certificate of registration is issued. The inspection checks for safety issues, like ensuring there are enough smoke detectors and that the room is habitable. The certificate must be displayed on the property.

Somerville has also offered its own short-term rentals guidelines.

Airbnb isn’t happy with the latest regulations approved by the Boston City Council.

The company said they worked with the mayor and council members to share data and collaborate on fair home sharing policies.

“Today’s disappointing vote is proof that our community’s feedback and concerns were not heard,” the company said. “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.”

The other player in the debate is the hotel and motel industry, which sees the short-term rental platforms as direct competition.

The Massachusetts Lodging Association, which represents the industry, said the regulations will help “protect Boston from exploitation at the hands of wealthy, out-of-town interests who have been buying up thousands of housing units in order to turn them into illegal hotels.”

Next up in the debate are state lawmakers, who have been grappling with their own response to the online platforms.

While both the Massachusetts House and Senate agree the platforms should be regulated and taxed, they don’t agree on how.

The House calls for a multi-tiered system for taxing short-term rentals, while the Senate wants to simply impose the state’s existing 5.7 percent lodging tax on those transactions.

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Negotiators from both chambers are working against a July 31 deadline to come up with a compromise bill.

Of course, short-terms rentals are only one part — and how big or small a part is up for debate — of the much larger challenge of soaring rents and housing costs that are threatening to price out both long-time renters and new arrivals.

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