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    City Council wrestles with Airbnb rules to protect housing supply, but finds no agreement

    Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images/File

    More than an hour into a hearing Tuesday on new regulations that Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants to put in place for short-term rentals like Airbnb’s, City Council President Andrea Campbell asked a version of the same question five times in five minutes.

    “What is the problem here?” she said. “And what is our goal?”

    It’s a question councilors wrestled with repeatedly over the course of a five-hour hearing, and it highlights the complexity of reining in the booming business of short-term rentals, without hurting tourism in the process.


    Walsh aims to block apartments from being used full time as short-term rentals — often by investors who don’t live there — a move the administration says will boost the city’s housing supply and help ease its rental crunch.

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    But some homeowners and landlords who use Airbnb to help pay their bills said they worry they could be knocked out of business.

    “I can see a future in Boston because I’m able to save money by renting this way,” said Rose Baker, a nursing student whose family owns a short-term rental unit in Dorchester. “It’s my way to stay here.”

    The use of short-term rentals — for visitors who rent apartments by the night — has exploded in Boston, thanks in part to websites like Airbnb that make it simple to list a unit, as easy as booking a hotel room.

    City officials estimate 2,000 apartments — out of more than 165,000 rental units citywide — are essentially full-time short-term rentals, particularly in the tourist-friendly neighborhoods in and around downtown. That number has roughly doubled in two years, said Sheila Dillon, Walsh’s housing chief.


    Housing advocates, and City Hall, worry that landlords are skipping the traditional 12-month lease to rent by the night to tourists, a practice that’s often more profitable.

    “We cannot win the war on our housing shortage in Boston if housing units are being taken off the market and used as short-term rentals,” Dillon said. “This is what’s happening.”

    Last month, Walsh proposed allowing people who rent a spare room in their home to keep doing so, while capping short-term rentals in investor-owned units at 90 nights per year. It was a policy two years in the making. But on Tuesday, the proposal seemed to make no one happy.

    Several councilors asked why the city should allow investor units at all, given that — by some calculations — landlords might still make more renting for 90 prime nights a year on Airbnb than they would with a standard 12-month lease.

    Others questioned how much of a difference the plan would make in rental prices and wondered whether red tape associated with new rules might discourage residents from listing spare apartments for short-term use.


    “Some people just use this to make extra money,” said City Councilor Frank Baker. “I would be hesitant to get into some of these rules.”

    Councilors also heard from people who attended the City Hall session.

    The industry giant Airbnb packed the chamber with property hosts, some of whom testified that renting out units through the company’s platform had helped them pay their mortgages or tuition.

    Several people from Chinatown said longtime residents have been pushed out of some buildings to make way for short-term rentals.

    Hotel workers filled one side of the chamber as Brian Lang, president of Unite Here Local 26, said blocking investor-owned short-term rentals is the “number one policy issue” for the union.

    A few people asked how the bill would treat visiting doctors, researchers, and others who come to town for more than a few nights but stay far less than a year.

    Those are some of the many details and questions that are likely to be hashed out in coming weeks as council members decide whether to vote on Walsh’s proposal or to hold more hearings and amend it.

    Other cities have had lengthy debates about such regulations; Los Angeles, for example, has been studying the issue for three years.

    Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.