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Airbnb, short-term rentals pose challenges to Boston’s housing market

In Boston’s short-term rental market, services like Airbnb may be doing more harm than good for the city’s housing displacement crisis.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced a new ordinance last week to begin regulating these services in the city. The directive creates a class of rentals known as investor units — entire properties rented out by an owner who never lives there. Over the years, this class of property has come to dominate Boston’s short-term rental market.

Sixty-two percent of available short-term rentals are entire homes or apartments, according to Inside Airbnb, a website that independently publishes data on the company’s listings. Around 65 percent of rentals are available for more than 60 days per year.

Nearly 56 percent of the city’s Airbnb hosts have multiple listings, according to Inside Airbnb. That’s because top hosts in Boston typically aren’t everyday people renting a spare room — they’re management companies using investor units as listings on Airbnb.

An owner named “Kara” is the city’s top host with over 180 listings, according to Inside Airbnb. On the official Airbnb website, reviewers even mention her — and the national rental accommodation company Global Luxury Suites — by name. Murray Cox, the creator of Inside Airbnb, said there’s no way someone like Kara could be a real person.

When contacted for confirmation that Global Luxury Suites is affiliated with “Kara’s” Airbnb profile in Boston, Moshe Isaacson, director of marketing for Global Luxury Suites, said he had no comment.

Inside Airbnb’s data shows “Kara” isn’t the only one. “Mike,” who has 76 listings, cites “Churchill Suites” — an affiliate of the New Jersey-based company Churchill Living — under “work” on his Airbnb profile. “Alicia,” the owner of 54 listings, appears linked with the Boston short-term rental company Maverick Empire. Other top hosts, though, identify themselves more explicitly as management companies, including Sonder, Bluebird, Stay Alfred and Domio (formerly “Anthony.”)

Cox said it’s common practice for owners of multiple Airbnb units to be management companies. Though a business name may be listed, he said, the host will often bear the name of an employee or a fake name altogether.

“When you look at their host profile they’ll pretend just to be the property owner,” Cox said of these management companies. “Sometimes they use stock photos for the host.”

When asked to comment on the prevalence of Airbnb hosts with multiple listings in Boston, Airbnb press secretary Crystal Davis referred The Daily Free Press to the 2017 Airbnb Boston Housing report. Davis wrote in an email the report shows “the platform’s lack of impact on Boston’s housing market.”

The report from Airbnb showed out of the 278,521 total housing units in Boston, only 5,200 listings of entire homes have ever hosted a trip through the rental service. Their data shows this is only two percent of all housing units in the city.

Cox disagreed with that analysis, writing in an email that comparing Airbnb rentals to the city’s entire housing stock is wrong, since only some neighborhoods are desirable to tourists — and thus have a greater concentration of Airbnbs. The area with the highest concentration is the Back Bay and Bay Village area, he wrote.

It’s more appropriate to compare Airbnb rentals to the number of vacant housing units available for rent in the city, Cox wrote. Using the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2016, he found the percentage of Airbnb listings to available vacant rentals to be 44 percent.

The Airbnb-produced report cites data from the website, Rent Jungle. Cox wrote this search engine uses advertised rental prices rather than the prices longer-term renters might pay and is, therefore, misleading.

“Airbnb’s choice to use this number serves to increase dramatically the number of nights you would need to host to match a 12-month rental,” Cox wrote. “Long term renters with lower rents are also likely to be displaced when the landlord decides to evict them to Airbnb for more money.”

Naomi Kaim, 34, of Kenmore, called this widespread investment by management companies into properties on Airbnb “a misappropriation of an idea.”

“Wasn’t the whole idea of Airbnb was that it was for individuals?” she said.

Airbnb’s reluctance to share their data with activists and other organizations has made it difficult to assess the impact short-term rentals have on Boston’s housing market, said Elizabeth Weyant, manager of government affairs for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

She said that one way to ensure companies like Airbnb comply with regulations for short-term rentals, like Walsh’s ordinance, is for municipalities like Boston to adopt language specifying that rentals must be owner-occupied. This means the owner has to live in the space they are renting.

“[With owner-occupied language] you’re not strangling this new economy, which is useful and does play a really important role in how people travel these days,” Weyant said. “But at the same time, you’re saying most of our housing stock isn’t supposed to be a hotel room.”

She added that owner-occupied language still leaves open the possibility that someone could rent out a room or section of their home.

“The market of short-term rental properties would still be diverse, which people are looking for,” Weyant said.

Boston’s North End has one of the highest concentrations of Airbnb rentals in the city, according to Inside Airbnb. There are over 200 units available, 91 percent of which are entire homes or apartments. Several residents there are aware of Airbnb’s presence and have expressed mixed views on how the company affects their neighborhood.

Gunnar Link, 35, said he is opposed to limiting the scale of Airbnb in the North End.

“It’s hard to say that if you can earn more money ‘Airbnbing’ a place, why shouldn’t you do that?” Link said. “In theory that should drive investment into real estate.”

Joel Edelstein, 54, said his building recently chose to prohibit future Airbnb rentals, and that there is less value in units that aren’t owner-occupied.

“It definitely changes the neighborhood when you have lots of transient people coming,” Edelstein said. “We definitely prefer people that just own and live here.”

Weyant, whose organization is trying to find ways to balance the need for housing with the emergence of short-term rentals, said there was a “gangbuster” rush to take advantage of the new market. Now, municipalities are trying to pull back.

“I think we’re all just starting to figure this out,” she said.

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