Commentary by Thomas F. Schiavoni
A recent tidal wave of short-term rentals on platforms such as Airbnb are flooding Boston’s housing market and stirring up intense debate over legislation proposed by the Mayor’s Office.
The North End and adjacent neighborhoods are nearing the tipping point of an ‘extinction event’. Earth scientists use this term to explain the sudden disappearance of life forms such as dinosaurs wiped out eons ago after the planet’s collision with a passing meteorite. But, the concept can be applied to man-made catastrophes that obliterate communities during times of war and persecution. And, instruments of destruction have been loosed even in peace time through governmental policies couched in benign-sounding terminology such as ‘urban renewal’. Boston’s West Enders, for example, met their fate from wrecking balls and bulldozers executing the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s planned cleansing of thousands of downtown residents who were turned into suburban refugees. And now, once-sustainable neighborhoods such as the North End, Charlestown, East Boston and Chinatown find themselves in the crosshairs of foreign investors and speculators vying for a piece of the action in a red hot real estate market while city officials temporize.
The North End is being overrun by absentee owners scooping up entire buildings and multiple units for short-term rentals which drain affordable stock from the residential pool. In effect, condominiums and apartments have been converted into unlicensed boutique hotels. Corporate lodgings for tourists and transients have sprouted like mushrooms along streets zoned for residential use. A walk along Cleveland Place, Battery and Sheafe Streets reveals telltale signs of coded lock boxes for keys affixed to doorknobs, sidewalk entrances and even a public telephone fixture. In one building, check-out times were posted in a foyer until long-time occupants complained. Neighbors have swapped stories of being awoken by noisy strangers entering and leaving their apartment buildings at all hours, dragging suitcases on rollers up and down stairs and hallways.
The shared sense of community and safety that have made the North End so desirable have ironically exposed it to exploitation for short-term rental bookings stoked by out-of-towners looking to make a quick buck. And, City Hall with the exception of a handful of councilors has largely sat back and watched the growing floodtide of apartment conversions in silence. Until this past January, the Walsh administration had endorsed a hands-off policy, issued by the commissioner of the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) in June 2014, which declined to enforce the regulation of short-term rentals. Almost four years elapsed as the issue was ‘taken under study’. And, on March 21, 2018 Mayor Martin Walsh withdrew his proposed legislation when it appeared that the prohibition of an ‘investor class’ in the short-term rental market might garner enough votes to pass. The matter has been shelved until software and data-tracking technology can be deployed by ISD. It leaves open the question of what the department has been up to these past four years and why what seems to work for Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, San Francisco and Los Angeles cannot likewise be adapted for Boston.
A decade ago, it was inconceivable that East Boston and Charlestown would have been showcased as the ‘go-to’ neighborhoods for hot real estate deals featured in the March 2018 issue of Boston Magazine. But, what has happened in the North End — and now surfacing in adjacent districts — will have a direct impact on other areas as well. When neighborhoods closer to the city center are cleansed of affordable housing opportunities, displaced renters and first-time buyers will migrate farther out to Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Roslindale and beyond. Speculators in the short-term rental markets will once again have their eyes on whole buildings and clusters of units close to transportation hubs renovated and upgraded with public funds.
A recent hearing in late January, convened by the Boston City Council, more resembled a theatrical tragedy than a legislative investigation into the loss of affordable housing units. Cantonese-speaking elders with translators in tow described heart-rending stories of displacement and eviction in Chinatown. Earlier in the proceeding, one councilor emphatically stated that she “(did) not see what this is all about” and that depressed districts within her neighborhood would, in fact, welcome an influx of outside investment. Unfortunately she and some of her colleagues from the outer neighborhoods will soon enough discover that their constituents, too, will be priced out of local housing and forced to relocate.
At the same council hearing, the short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb presented the cases of small, individual property owners of condos, duplexes and triple-deckers to oppose amendments in the legislation. Many of those presentations were based upon misinformation about who would still be permitted to list spaces. One particularly disruptive and distracting lobbyist constantly wandered back and forth in the council chamber galleries, clipboard in hand, issuing instructions to spectators lined up to testify. These local, small-scale entrepreneurs were manipulated by the big stakeholders as stand-ins presenting the public face of the short-term rental industry. It was reminiscent of the same tactic used by giant agribusiness to push into the limelight family farmers whenever there is about to be a change in federal policy targeted at the major corporate players. Actually the proposed amendments to the mayor’s bill would specifically protect the above forms of property in generating income for owner-occupants to pay taxes, mortgages and their children’s college tuition.
The regulation of short-term rentals has been wrongly framed by some interests as a win-loss situation between inner and outer neighborhoods and districts. But, what is spreading in the downtown core will metastasize elsewhere. Despite creeping gentrification, the displacement of long-time residents does not have to be an immutable law of nature. The mayor has it in his power as well as the city council to regulate an essential commodity of life — shelter. It’s a political issue. But, it is also a matter of social justice. Who will share in the ‘New Boston’ cranked up by the BRA’s vision machine from the 9th floor of City Hall?
The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine (February 24, 2018) recently featured a column that rushed to the defense of affluent, young and educated arrivals in reaping the benefits of Boston’s building boom. The commentator blithely pronounced that gentrification of the city’s neighborhoods was a fait accompli and praised “the virtue of the rich in tend(ing) to demand less in the way of city services.” Factually he was telling a whopper. Developers of luxury sky palaces and even workforce housing soak up taxpayers’ money via tax credits, generous abatements and infrastructure improvements that add value to their properties. Plus zoning variances get green-lighted by city authorities to soar above existing height restrictions in pursuit of stratospheric profits. And, frequently a waiver of mandatory on-site parking requirements, which boosts a developer’s profit margin, drives up the rates at parking garages used by neighborhood residents.
The frustrating part of all of this is that those city councilors, who have ostentatiously voiced their skepticism about reining in short-term rentals, remain clueless. And, like the mayor, they are now stalling as they invoke catchwords like ‘world class city’ with world class indifference about other residents not within the circle of their own constituencies. Meanwhile once viable neighborhoods such as the North End are being dismembered street by street and block by block — fallen victims to transience and absentee landlords. And, the doorway lockboxes and fencepost key holders of Airbnb units multiply like mold in a musty basement.
The tide of market speculation surges relentlessly. Each week that elapses, marks the loss of more rentable housing units washed away from Boston’s core neighborhoods. Like the aftermath of a boulder thrown into a pond, rings of wavelets — evictions and displacements — ripple outwards from the point of impact towards shore. Refugees from downtown neighborhoods, set adrift by absentee investors and speculators, will wash up on the doorsteps of other apartment buildings and condominiums marketed within city limits or even beyond Boston proper. Residents of outlying communities will witness the tightening of affordable housing as they struggle to age in place and witness their grown children priced out of the local market.
If the New Boston is now incapable of sustaining genuinely mixed-housing, it is the result of ineptitude and the indifference of municipal officials who chose rapacious development over thoughtful planning in their obsessive pursuit of growth at any cost. It is no secret that the Mayor’s office and municipal agencies such as the BRA, zoning board and inspectional services largely treat the North End as a an economic engine and theme park rather than a residential community. The neighborhood is facing an existential threat not from a passing meteorite, but from the passage of ill-conceived legislation that would still permit an ‘investor class’ to be a stakeholder in the short-term rental market.
The countdown is on. Bulldozers and wrecking balls won’t be needed to destroy Boston’s neighborhoods when the stroke of a mayoral pen, bureaucratic passivity and governmental inaction will produce the same result. World-class cities don’t allow themselves to be manipulated by foreign interests and speculators. Why do public officials and business leaders always feel compelled to compare Boston to places like New York and Paris when what we really want is a livable city that we can still call home?
From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.
NOTES and SOURCES:
The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) — rebranded since 2016 as the Boston Planning and Redevelopment Agency (BPDA) — still retains its former chartered name for important legal transactions and votes of its board of directors.
Northendwaterfront.com, Mark Fuechec, March 6, 2018, City Council has mixed feelings on “Investor Unit” ban.
Boston Magazine, March 2018, The Last Great Deals. Going, Going … Almost All Gone. Where to Find a Steal in Boston’s Red-Hot Real Estate Market.
Boston Globe Magazine, Tom Keane, February 20, 2018, Perspective: There will never be room for the middle class in Boston.
Commonwealth Magazine, Winter 2018, January 9, 2018, Jack Thomas, The Airbnb gold rush is on. Note: ISD Commissioner’s memorandum of stay of enforcement on short-term rentals is embedded as an attachment at the conclusion of the article.