Airbnb has filed a lawsuit in an effort to overturn Boston’s new short-term rental law, and is asking a judge to block the stringent rules from taking effect on Jan. 1.
In a federal court filing on Tuesday, Airbnb claims that Boston’s regulations requiring online rental platforms to police their listings and share user information with the city violate state and federal laws.
Under the rules set to take effect in January, Airbnb investors and apartment tenants would be prohibited from renting their homes by the night, and property owners would not be allowed to list more than one unit on the website. Airbnb has about 6,300 listings in Boston. Studies suggest an outsized share of its business comes from investors and other hosts the rules are aimed at curtailing.
The Walsh administration and some neighborhood groups say the exploding short-term rental industry is exacerbating Boston’s housing shortage because landlords take apartments out of the general rental market to instead lease them by the night to tourists.
When the measure was moving through Boston’s City Council during the spring, debate centered on what sort of homes could be leased short-term, and for how long. Airbnb is not challenging the law on those grounds. Instead, it argues that requiring online hosts to enforce the rules violates the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from being penalized for third-party content — in this case, ads people post to rent their homes, Airbnb says — and also infringes on the company’s First Amendment right to free speech.
“This is a case about a city trying to conscript home-sharing platforms into enforcing regulations on the city’s behalf,” wrote Howard Cooper, a prominent Boston defense attorney who is representing Airbnb. “The City of Boston has enacted an ordinance limiting short-term residential rentals by hosts. But it goes much further than that. The ordinance also enlists home-sharing platforms like Airbnb into enforcing those limits under threat of draconian penalties, including $300-per-violation-per-day fines and complete banishment from doing business in Boston.”
A company spokeswoman declined further comment. A spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation. City Councilor Michelle Wu, one of the bill’s leading architects, posted on Twitter that she was “not surprised” Airbnb went to court “after they failed in the court of public opinion.”
“Boston needs to keep implementation on track for January 1st,” Wu tweeted. “These regulations close corporate loopholes exacerbating our housing crisis & are urgent. We will figure out enforcement one way or another.”
Airbnb previously has sued several cities that have tried to impose new rules on short-term rentals. Last year, the company settled a lawsuit it had filed against San Francisco over steep fines Airbnb would have to pay for unregistered hosts, agreeing to collect host data and turn it over to the city for enforcement. The company’s listings there fell by roughly half when the law took effect earlier this year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In August, Airbnb sued New York City over a new law that is similar to Boston’s. That case, along with Airbnb’s request for an injunction, is pending.
The prospect of lawsuits against cities is one reason many advocates of tougher short-term rental rules have focused on pushing statewide legislation in Massachusetts. A statewide registry, they say, would make it easier for cities and towns to enforce local regulations, and could give them a stronger position in any court proceedings.
A bill on Beacon Hill that would have created the nation’s first statewide short-term registry has been in legislative limbo since August, when Governor Charlie Baker sent it back to lawmakers, requesting several key changes, after the end of the legislative session.
Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.