Boston City Council members exposed a long-simmering debate over the digital economy’s impact on the housing market Monday as they began considering regulations on short-term home rentals offered through online services such as Airbnb Inc.
The hearing, which aired the complaints of businesses, landlords, and residents, is part of a national wave of regulatory pressure on Airbnb and competing websites.
Massachusetts officials are increasingly concerned that Airbnb rentals are removing long-term housing from the market, potentially worsening an already tight market in Greater Boston and elsewhere in the state.
East Boston resident John McCarthy said he has seen that happen in his neighborhood. Landlords have taken advantage of the area’s proximity to Logan Airport to turn some year-round homes into short-term rentals, he said, forcing longtime residents out.
“Are we going to take the brunt because we happen to be close to the airport?” McCarthy asked. “You really need to take a look at this, because it’s affecting a lot of people who just want to live in this city and have a way to live decently.”
Evidence to back up such complaints can be hard to come by. Councilors pressed the Inspectional Services commissioner, William Christopher Jr., for information about the scope of short-term rentals in the city but were told that Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office is still trying to collect enough data to develop policy recommendations.
In the meantime, said Councilor Sal LaMattina, officials are hearing complaints from many constituents.
“Short-term rentals are affecting their quality of life,” LaMattina said. “Residents are dealing with noise and unknown visitors in their multi-unit buildings. Without a regulatory policy in place, are we able to ensure the safety of these units?”
State lawmakers expect to take up new legislation and taxes on such rentals next year, possibly applying the taxes paid by hotel guests to people who rent short-term homes on Airbnb, HomeAway, FlipKey, and other sites.
Airbnb has released data showing that high-volume rental hosts are a small but lucrative slice of its user base. The San Francisco company has said that it welcomes charging hotel taxes to guests. It also is willing to accept regulations for commercial operators, provided the regulations do not deter homeowners from renting their properties from time to time.
At Monday’s hearing, some landlords challenged the notion that Airbnb and similar services are eating into the supply of scarce affordable apartments, even though short-term rentals can bring in more money.
Dan Sugarman, a South End property owner, said he converted one of his rental units into a short-term furnished apartment a few years ago. He can make about $1,300 per week on Airbnb. But if it was back on the long-term market, he said, it would rent for about $3,000 per month.
“Most of the people that are doing Airbnb-type apartments, they’re pretty nice apartments that people are willing to pay for,” said Sugarman, who lives in his building. “As an owner of a private house, I think you should be able to do what you want. And if you’re doing a really lousy job, you’re going to go out of business anyway.”