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Walsh announces new guidelines for short-term rentals

Mayor Martin Walsh announced Monday that short-term rental services like Airbnb will be subject to greater regulation in Boston under a new citywide ordinance.

The ordinance establishes a framework to classify and track short-term rental units in the city and includes measures to deter owners from monopolizing the housing market with short-term rentals, according to a press release from Walsh’s office.

Short-term rental units in the city will be separated into three classifications: limited share units, in which the owner shares part of their living space and is present during the rental, home share units, in which the owner rents out their entire living space for up to three months a year, and investor units, in which the owner rents out an entire space they don’t occupy themselves.

Owners will be charged an annual fee of $25, $100 or $500 to maintain a rental of the first, second or third classifications, respectively. In the release, Walsh said this measure aims to discourage homeowners from putting their homes on the short-term rental market, thereby increasing the accessibility of affordable housing to Bostonians.  

“Preserving Boston’s affordability is key to keeping our communities stable and ensuring every person and family who wants to live here can afford to do so,” Walsh said, “ … we look forward to responsibly incorporating the growth of the home-share industry into our work to create affordable housing for all.”

Airbnb and other short-term rental services have become important players in Boston’s housing market. Crystal Davis, press secretary for Airbnb, wrote in an email that the company has had a widespread impact on city residents.

“In 2017, over 3,000 Boston families used Airbnb to help pay their mortgage [and] rent and bring tourism dollars to neighborhood businesses,” Davis wrote. “We are pleased that the city of Boston is making progress on regulations for our home sharing community and will continue our review of the full proposal.”

Lizzy Archer, 23, of South Boston, said Airbnb has been a convenient housing option for her in the past.

“Airbnb gives a competitive way to stay in the city,” Archer said. “I was in between apartments, and I stayed at an Airbnb for months because it was cheaper than a hotel and you’re not going to be able to rent an apartment for a month or two.”

According to the website Inside Airbnb, which independently publishes data on the company’s listings, there are just under 4,900 available rentals in Boston. Around 62 percent of those rentals are entire homes or apartments — which would likely fall into the “investor unit” tier of the mayor’s new classifications, according Helen Matthews, communications manager at City Life/Vida Urbana.

“These are people that are speculating on their property, using them to make money in their absence,” Matthews said. “So that’s not building community. It’s actually chipping away at community when you have entire homes being rented out to people that are just traveling through.”

Matthews and other community members say affordable housing is disappearing in part due to speculation by short-term renters.

“Scores of people, especially low-income families of color and immigrant families, are getting driven out through major rent hikes and sometimes whole building-wide evictions,” Matthews said. “The less regulated short-term rentals are…a prospective buyer sees more dollar signs in a property they could buy.”

Barbara Gutierrez, 54, of Brighton, said she was also concerned over low-income housing disappearing in the city,

“Gentrification is happening in some of our neighborhoods at an alarming rate,” the Brighton resident said. “With all of the construction going so fast, no one is looking at affordable housing.”

Chinatown is one of the neighborhoods most impacted by short-term rental speculation, said Karen Chen, the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. She said while there’s no problem when people rent a room on Airbnb if they’ll be out of town for a couple months, emptying out buildings to rent online entirely is a different issue.

“That’s the biggest threat for preserving the housing stock for working families,” Chen said. “A lot of working families rely on the services provided in Chinatown for survival, so if people are pushed out, it could affect more than just housing.”

Additionally, Chen said she feels that the $500 annual fee charged to “investor unit” owners is not enough of a deterrent to prevent investors from speculating on land and buying up properties that could provide long-term housing for residents.

“I feel like it doesn’t have enough teeth,” she said.

Still, for John Dowd, 36, of Jamaica Plain, any efforts to preserve low-income housing are good ones.

“I’m glad that it’s top of mind, that the city is actually acknowledging there’s a housing crisis,” Dowd said.


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