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Municipalities seek to regulate peer-to-peer services

When Quincy building inspectors recently fined a local couple $1,500 for running what was determined to be an illegal bed-and-breakfast out of the Bayside Road home they advertised on home-sharing site Airbnb , the city officially plunged into the increasingly murky waters of trying to regulate the growing and wildly popular peer-to-peer service-sharing industry.

The recent proliferation of websites like Airbnb, Uber, and DogVacay allowing people to rent or offer services directly to one another have put some communities in the position of trying to balance local entrepreneurial activity with the rules and regulations that govern traditional businesses such as hotels and taxi companies.

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City councilors in Boston recently approved an ordinance banning private individuals from profiting from the use of public parking spaces, essentially forcing parking app Haystack and others like it to cease operations in the city.

Taxi drivers have also railed against ride-sharing service companies such as Uber, Lyft, and SideCar , and lobbied for regulations restricting their use.

Most recently, the spotlight has turned on sites like Airbnb, VRBO, and FlipKey , which connect guests with hosts who rent spare bedrooms, in-law apartments, or even entire homes on a short-term basis.

Boston City Councilor Sal LaMattina indicated recently that he wants the council to make sure home-sharing sites comply with the city’s regulations. Meanwhile, Airbnb has started to collect hotel taxes in San Francisco and Portland. In New York, the state attorney general’s office has asked and received information on approximately 16,000 hosts who use Airbnb, in an effort to track people running illegal hotels who are not paying lodging taxes.

In Quincy, it was ultimately complaints from neighbors about the numbers of people coming and going from the house that led city inspectors to the Bayside Road home of Richard Cope and Susan Velentgas last month and again earlier this month, citing them with building and zoning code violations, said Chris Walker, spokesman for Mayor Thomas P. Koch.

The fines against the couple, however, were not an indictment or ban on the use of Airbnb and sites like it in the city, Walker said.

“Any lodging facility is required to follow the appropriate zoning and building code, and there is no evidence that this homeowner sought any kind of license and approval to run a lodging facility, which is just a black-and-white code violation,” Walker said. “Our problem is not with Airbnb and the concept; it’s strictly with the fact that it’s in a single-family [zoned] neighborhood.”

In certain areas of Quincy zoned for mixed uses, including residential and commercial uses, the city would be more flexible about the practice of short-term rentals, depending on the situation, Walker said. But in areas of the city zoned strictly for single-family residences, commercial and business practices are prohibited, unless relief from zoning restrictions is sought and granted. Cope and Velentgas, who could not be reached for comment, agreed to stop renting rooms in eschange for having the fines dropped.

That the use of websites or apps allowing people to pad their income is permitted in some parts of a community but not others is not a question of fairness or selective enforcement, said James B. Lampke, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association, based in Hingham.

“It is not just a simple thing of, ‘What’s the big deal? They’re just letting people stay in their house for the weekend or the week,’” Lampke said. “This is being done for people to make a profit. You just can’t run a business in a zone where it’s not permitted.

“When you do it on a regular basis, put yourself in the position of other people in the neighborhood who bought believing they would be in a residential area and all of a sudden they have a Holiday Inn next door to them, which is not typical in a residential neighborhood.”

The growth of peer-to-peer sites has created a so-called sharing economy, with increasing numbers of people signing up to share amenities to supplement their income. Most of this activity goes unchecked and unregulated, but as complaints mount, so does the pressure on city and town governments to enforce restrictions, Lampke said.

“Based on discussions I’ve had with colleagues of mine from around the country, it’s getting to be an issue from coast to coast,” he said. “Local government has a responsibility to act for the general protection, health, safety, and welfare, and it does that through certain regulations and laws as to what can be done and not done. Now with new technology, people are able to do things under the radar screen, yet those activities are not being regulated in order to ensure that things are done safely and done in accordance with all the other laws.”

Instead of statewide involvement, however, Lampke said communities should be left to regulate shared services as they see fit, in accordance to local zoning laws.

Airbnb, which boasts that it lists bookings in more than 35,000 cities in 190 countries, asks its users to be familiar with local zoning laws before renting out their homes, said spokesman Nick Papas.

“We absolutely support responsible, fair, and supportive rules for the sharing economy, and welcome working with communities around the world,” Papas said. “We think we need some fair, progressive rules for home-sharing and people should have a right to share the homes in which they live. We believe we can work together everywhere.”

Currently there are no plans to address specific regulation of sites like Airbnb in Quincy, where finding illegal rooming houses is at the top of inspectors’ lists, said Walker, the mayor’s spokesman. Inspectors, however, do monitor online housing ads on several websites and are quick to respond to complaints from neighbors, he added.

Lampke, who in his role as town counsel in Hull is dealing with several court appeals relating to short-term summer house rentals there, said local governments shouldn’t overregulate innovation, but should respond if concerns are raised over new practices adopted by well-meaning, but possibly uninformed, residents.

“There’s nothing wrong with a shared economy. People are trying to make money and pay bills, but just do it legally,” he said. “If you didn’t have regulations that regulated the entrepreneurial spirit, I’d be running a restaurant from my house.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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