Airbnb hosts criticize plan for short-term rental database
Lawmakers Monday sent Governor Charlie Baker a bill that would make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to post the street addresses of all short-term rentals on a public database.
The registry is part of sweeping legislation passed by both the House and Senate to tax and regulate the booming business of renting homes nightly through popular websites such as Air-bnb.
Supporters of a public registry say it would allow people to find out whether their neighbors are renting their homes short term and also help cities and towns better gauge the level of such rental activity.
Critics, including Airbnb, say making so much data publicly available imperils the privacy of hosts and guests alike.
“The registry is probably the biggest concern we have with this proposal,” said Philip Minardi, a spokesman for Expedia Group, which owns short-term rental businesses HomeAway and VRBO. “You’re talking about a public website that will list names and addresses of people who may only rent their homes out a few nights a year. There are privacy worries.”
But housing advocates and neighborhood groups say a registry will help officials to police what they call a wild west of unaccountable rental hosts — particularly in Boston and Cambridge — who often hide behind fake names and imprecise addresses on websites such as Airbnb.
“If you don’t know where people are renting out rooms and it’s basically a game of hide and seek, it’s going to be a mess,” said Colleen Fitzpatrick, an organizer with the Fenway Community Development Corp. in Boston, which has pushed for a public registry. “It would make local regulations totally unenforceable.”
Similar registries exist in a handful of cities nationwide, including Nashville and New Orleans, which posts on a city website a searchable map of short-term rentals, complete with owners’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Austin, Texas, includes street names and zip codes but removed the actual street numbers after hosts voiced concerns about their privacy being violated.
Cambridge recently launched a database as part of new rental regulations that took effect earlier this year; on Monday there were 175 addresses listed.
Bob Reardon, the city’s director of assessment, said he was thrilled with the state bill, which will make it easier for Cambridge to track and enforce its own regulations.
“This is what we were hoping for when we passed our bill,” he said. “It is very hard for cities and towns individually to do registration. This will allow a central registry for the whole state.”
Officials in Boston, which also plans to create a registry as part of recently passed regulations that will take effect next year, cheered the new bill as well.
Under the statewide bill, Massachusetts would require short-term rental operators to register and pay taxes.
In a statement Monday, Airbnb warned that the online listings could send a discouraging message about doing business here.
“A public registry of our hosts sets a precedent that negatively impacts families who home share and the state’s reputation as a business leader,” the company said. “We look forward to Governor Baker’s consideration of this legislation and its potential impact on every corner of the state.”
The fate of the bill, including the registry, is now up to Baker. He can sign it into law, let it die on his desk, or send it back to lawmakers with changes.
It’s not clear if Baker supports the bill. At one point he backed legislation that would exempt homeowners who rent units for fewer than 150 days per year from taxes and registration, which would help second-home owners on the Cape and Islands.
Neither the House nor Senate included that exemption in their versions of the bill. On Monday, Baker said he would review the final version to ensure it’s not onerous for small-time operators.
“If somebody dabbles in this stuff and does a few days a year, we really didn’t think that forcing them to do all of the administrative work associated with setting themselves up as a business made a heck of a lot of sense,” he said. “That’s obviously something that we’ll take a look at.”
Still the governor, lawmakers, and even the big platforms are broadly in agreement about most of what the bill would do.
It establishes a 5.7 percent tax — the same rate hotels pay — on short-term rentals, which would raise an estimated $25 million for the state. It includes an option for municipalities to add 6 percent more (6.5 percent in Boston) in tax levies, an additional 3 percent tax on hosts who rent out more than one unit, and a 2.75 percent tax on the Cape and Islands to help pay for sewer improvements.
It also allows cities and towns to set their own rules — as Boston recently did — to dictate who can rent a home out by the night and how often.
Both advocates and Airbnb have said they expect the new rules in Boston — which ban short-term rentals of most nonowner-occupied units — will reduce the number of listings in the short run. But having clear, consistent rules at the state and local level may well help the industry grow long term, said Ford Cavallari, chairman of Boston’s Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations.
“There has been a growing realization that what we had was a chaotic, out-of-control system that wasn’t benefiting anyone,” he said. “Once you adopt an orderly system, that’s when real, breakthrough growth begins.”