City Council Has Mixed Feelings on “Investor Unit Ban” for Short-Term Rentals (AirBnb)

The City Council is split between caution and urgency in crafting their response to the mayor’s short-term rentals ordinance, due later this month.

“My immediate reaction to a time crunch is to be restrictive and then open it up slowly in terms of what we can offer,” said District 1 City Councilor Lydia Edwards. “Let’s make sure that these are owner-occupants and that we have a 90-day limit, and let’s not have an investor category.”

The Council has until March 21 to respond to the ordinance, or have it proceed as written. The push to ban investor units from Boston’s short-term rental market raised concerns from councilors representing the city’s outer neighborhoods, which see themselves benefitting from the real estate investment and tourists Airbnb brings. In a working session last week, councilors from several districts expressed their concerns.

Image from the Alliance of Downtown Civic Groups presentation showing 70/30 split of investor units (green) to resident-listed units (yellow).

“When you talk investor units, it’s far different in Chinatown and Back Bay than it is in Dorchester,” said District 3 City Councilor Frank Baker, whose district includes most of Dorchester and parts of South Boston and the South End. “My concern is that we’re trying to cast a net over this and I think we’re going to do some harm.”

District 9 City Councilor Mark Ciommo raised the prospect of creating a pilot program that prioritized registration before regulation. Citing the possibility of unintended consequences from overly-aggressive regulation, Ciommo sought a way to further study the issue.

“We’ve got a lot of unknowns here,” he said. “I think the real heart of it is getting real hard actual data. We get the registration online. We identify who, what, where, when, how.”

Edwards said she normally supports pilot programs, but in this case the data is already available. “We should go on the data we already have. When it comes to the investor unit definition, I am very concerned with how it is eating up our neighborhoods. This is becoming a new real estate and economic model in the investor space.”

“The City Council wants to make sure not to create any unintended consequences,” said At-Large Councilor Michelle Wu, but it is clear that the city is seeing plenty of consequences already. Wu raised the prospect of using existing zoning rules to differentiate regulations by neighborhood.

“Can this be categorized into zoning so that we have knowledge of where that’s happening and we can say ‘In these geographic areas, yes that can happen. In the downtown area, that can’t happen.’”

District 8 City Councilor Josh Zakim also pointed to zoning as a way to address the city’s issues with short-term rentals. He requested more information from the city of how that might be used.

“We have existing zoning,” he said. “If something’s a hotel, I would like to see it treated like a hotel. I’d like to know if there’s additional tools you need to enforce zoning.”

“Zoning should not be the primary tool by which short-term rentals are regulated,” said Ford Cavallari, Chairman of the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations, “but it is a fairly easy exercise to look at zoning and see which overlays are for conditional, forbidden and allowed use.”

See more coverage on short-term rentals by searching the tag: short-term rentals