Airbnb’s salvo last week against City Councilor Michelle Wu for her stance on short-term rentals surprised many. Even in the sharp-elbowed world of Boston politics, public attacks by an out-of-town company on a city councilor are rare.
But it popped the lid off the simmering debate over Airbnb’s future in Boston as the council and Mayor Martin J. Walsh try to hammer out rules to govern the booming short-term rental industry. At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars, with powerful interests on both sides.
For two months in public, and in two years of quiet meetings before that, a vast array of interests has been wrestling over an industry that’s changing the way people visit Boston and — some say — turning too much of the city’s scarce housing stock into hotels for out-of-towners.
It had been a largely civil debate — at least compared to lawsuits and loud protests over similar issues in cities such as New York and Los Angeles — until last week. Then, industry giant Airbnb sent an e-mail to thousands of Boston customers blasting Wu — who has pushed for tougher restrictions over short-term rentals — and saying she is “aligned with big hotel interests against the interests of regular Bostonians.”
The flare-up that followed, including frowns from City Hall and scathing criticism of Airbnb on social media, casts light on a debate with much at stake for the city and its property owners.
On one side are neighborhood groups, housing activists, and members of the city’s powerful hotel workers union, who generally advocate for tighter regulations. On the other side are Airbnb and its small army of “hosts,” along with a growing industry of short-term rental operators and service providers who worry they’ll be clobbered if the tougher rules on the table take effect.
In the middle sits Walsh and the City Council. They are weighing a tight housing market and anxious neighbors against the desire to keep Boston open to an increasingly popular form of lodging, which helps bring tourists — and their wallets — to some of the city’s less-traveled neighborhoods.
“The most important thing to the mayor is that we preserve housing,” said Joyce Linehan, Walsh’s chief of policy. “But there is a lot at stake. This industry is very profitable, and very popular. Users love it. So there are advocates on all sides making their case.”
There were standing-room-only hearings after Walsh filed new rules with the City Council in January. Unite Here Local 26, which represents hotel workers and had close ties to many city elected officials, brought its members out in force.
But so did Airbnb, which encouraged hosts to come and talk about what renting on the service has meant for them. Lesser-known — and less numerous — groups such as a coalition of short-term rental hosts have hired lobbyists and public relations experts to press their case.
Even Stop Child Predators, a Washington, D.C.,-based group that lobbies for laws to protect against sex abuse, has been weighing in with press releases pushing tougher regulations, implying the risk unknown renters pose to neighbors.
Given the competing interests and complexities of regulating a new industry, Walsh pulled the bill before the Council voted on it, but his aides say he plans to file a new version soon.
Wu, meanwhile, called some of AirBnB’s claims “fake news,” and her supporters blasted the company for spreading misinformation to city residents.
This debate over short-term rentals has played out across the country as cities grapple with how to regulate the industry. Airbnb and the hotel industry have funded economic studies and fueled grass-roots political campaigns to push their vision of the industry’s future, and they have become experienced sparring partners.
But every city has unique dynamics, said Will Burns, a former Chicago alderman who now directs public policy for Airbnb. That makes the rules, and the flavor of debate, a little different each time.
“It really depends on what city you’re in,” Burns said, noting that some cities are most worried about potential safety issues of short-term rentals, others quality of life, others housing supply. “All these cities have different concerns.”
In Boston, debate has centered largely on the impact short-term rentals are having on one of the nation’s priciest housing markets.
The Walsh administration estimates that more than 2,000 apartments in Boston have been effectively taken off the market for use as full-time short-term rentals — a number Airbnb disputes. City officials have proposed capping many apartments at 90 nights of short-term rental a year, a bid to limit what they call “de facto hotels” while still allowing residents to rent a spare room or, occasionally, their whole apartment.
Airbnb says it would accept those sort of rules, as long as its hosts can still rent their spare bedrooms. Burns wouldn’t say how firm a cap they’d support.
Either way, the idea alarms another slice of the industry — the people who’ve gone into business managing, cleaning, and repairing short-term rentals — and they’re trying to get heard, too.
“We’re kind of the forgotten group,” said Kama Cicero, a real estate agent who manages about 30 short-term rentals for their owners. “We’re not the homeowners. We’re also not someone who’s buying a building and turning it into a hotel.”
A tight annual cap would clobber the short-term rental business, said Cicero, who joined with other hosts and suppliers to create the Boston Host Alliance, which is also lobbying City Hall, separately from Airbnb. The new rules would kill jobs, she said, and make it hard to provide a valuable service. After all, she pointed out, people came to Boston for extended stints to work and study at the region’s many hospitals and universities and needed a place to stay long before Airbnb gave the industry rocket fuel.
“That’s the type of clientele we cater to,” Cicero said in a recent interview. “Families who are coming to Boston, sometimes for a while, and can’t afford a hotel the whole time.”
City officials say they’re trying to craft a policy that considers all the wrinkles of short-term rentals, while also protecting the housing market. And they’re keeping an eye on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers are aiming to complete a bill of their own this summer to deal with taxes and other rules for short-term rentals statewide.
Linehan said the Walsh administration will come out with a new bill for the city, likely in a couple of weeks, and send it back to the council for yet more debate.
That’s fine with Josh Zakim. The city councilor from Back Bay said he has been hearing a lot from residents who want rules and consistent standards, and from people who want short-term rentals to survive in some form. Both sides, he said, have good points.
“It’s been a pretty reasonable conversation,” Zakim said. “Up until last week.”