Downtown View:Airbnb Woes

By Karen Cord Taylor

Airbnb and its cohorts have been a lifesaver for some downtown residents. They say that renting out a room in their home has allowed them to afford Boston’s high rents or helped them pay for the costly mortgages they have to take on if they buy a place.

Travelers like the arrangement because living in a neighborhood rather than a hotel gives them a more authentic experience.

But it’s complicated. Public officials have received many complaints. Neighborhood leaders, through the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations (ADCO), are concerned. State Representative Aaron Michlewitz has filed legislation trying to rein in abuses. Mayor Walsh issued an executive order in early May that instructs city departments to find out what is going on.

Anecdotally, neighbors say that individual apartments, whole rental buildings and entire single-family houses are being rented to strangers, removing from the market scarce housing that could be rented long-term, violating occupancy or zoning regulations, or frightening occupants of multi-family buildings because strangers are always coming and going. Long-time residents are concerned that an influx of short-term occupants, who have no stake in the neighborhood, will further erode conditions that are already challenging when people live densely in small quarters.

“It’s about quality of life,” said Arturo Gossage, a Chinatown resident who participates in ADCO. “Communities are not being preserved because of this practice.”

Is the problem bad? How extensive is it? No one knows. Rumors persist that renters are living elsewhere and renting their apartment to short-term occupants without their landlord’s knowledge. Another rumor is that the new Ink Block in the South End is filled with Airbnb-ers. Chinatown has at least two entire buildings devoted to Airbnb, said Gossage.

“It’s hard to gauge because you don’t really know who’s renting Airbnb,” said Toni Gilardi, a long-time real estate agent in the North End.

The impetus for owners to rent by the night rather than by the year is big bucks. Let’s say a two-bedroom apartment rents for $3,000 a month. If an owner listed it on Airbnb for $200 a night, probably a low figure, he or she could come away with $6,000 in a 30–day month. Expenses are limited. Of course, not every night might be rented. But still.

Tourists may prefer to have a whole apartment to themselves rather than a room in a stranger’s house.

Here’s what we do know. On one day in early May, 211 entire home rentals were listed for two people wanting to stay on Beacon Hill. Four of these were at 112 Myrtle Street.

In Charlestown, 126 entire homes were available. In the North End, 159 homes were listed, but the site showed only 15 rooms in someone’s house or apartment. In the Back Bay a whopping 306 entire homes were available with only 46 listings for a room in someone’s home.

It looks as if there is a trend, and it is what residents have feared. A significant number of whole apartments and single houses are being rented through Airbnb and its copy cat sites, and it is rarely the nice hosts renting out their spare bedroom. It appears as if a whole support industry of management businesses and cleaning services have gotten into the act, although this column doesn’t have room to explore all that.

Some protections in some buildings exist. Condo associations often have clauses in their agreements that prevent owners from renting their entire apartment on a short-term basis. Depending on the size and configuration of the building and how well people know one another, however, a scofflaw can be difficult to find.

Cities all over America are grappling with this matter. As of early May, Airbnb agreed to register its San Francisco hosts, and the city will make it possible to obtain registrations electronically. New York has made it illegal to rent a home for fewer than 30 days, and can issue fines to people who advertise such a listing. Reportedly, an owner in Trump Tower paid a $1,000 fine for doing such a thing.

So in Boston there are data to be gathered, testimony to be heard and ultimately, probably, regulations to be imposed.

The irony, though, say some real estate brokers, is that those proverbial absentee landlords who have kept their rental apartments in bad shape probably won’t do much better with Airbnb than with long-term rentals. On Airbnb the visitors can rate them. Wouldn’t it be nice if long-term renters could do the same?

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