In the brewing fight over short-term rental regulations in Boston, Airbnb just took a big shot at City Councilor Michelle Wu. And now her supporters are firing back.
The home-sharing giant Tuesday e-mailed a broad swath of its Boston customers urging them to e-mail City Hall to oppose “unreasonable restrictions” it said Wu has proposed on short-term rentals, including a 30-day cap on stays when the unit’s owner is not home. And it accused Wu of being “aligned with big hotel interests against the interests of regular Bostonians.”
The e-mail, which appeared to go to thousands of people across the city, was an unusually loud critique of an individual council member — although Wu has been the strongest voice on the council for tougher regulations. And it made one claim in particular that raised eyebrows: the 30-day cap.
When the council last month was debating short-term rental rules proposed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Wu and colleague Lydia Edwards did introduce an amendment that would have barred renters from home-sharing and required short-term rental hosts to notify neighbors, as Airbnb’s e-mail claimed. The measure was not voted on before Walsh pulled his proposal — which included a 90-day limit on many units — to tweak enforcement rules. But, while Wu did say she thought the 90-day limit was too lenient, she never proposed a 30-day cap.
“We stayed away from caps,” Wu wrote in a text to the Globe. “They’re too hard to enforce.”
Wu’s defenders, and Airbnb’s critics, jumped all over the claim Tuesday, taking to social media to blast the company for “spreading misinformation to seemingly 1000s of Boston residents,” as housing activist Grace Holley put it on Twitter. One woman called it “bizarre spin,” while another man said the attack “is probably sign #2564 that Wu is fighting for the right people.” Another suggested it’s a “badge of honor” to be blasted by Airbnb.
The spat illustrates the delicate politics around short-term rentals, which are popular with tourists but some housing advocates and neighborhood groups say take apartments out of Boston’s already-tight housing market for use, effectively, as hotel rooms. Airbnb and supporters say those concerns are overblown, fueled by hotel-industry groups worried about lost business, and that many hosts are everyday residents who rent out an apartment or spare room for extra cash to help afford costly Boston.
Airbnb itself has kept a relatively low profile as Boston has debated new regulations, lobbying behind the scenes while letting its community of “hosts” do the talking at City Council hearings that have been packed with advocates from all sides. Tuesday’s e-mail blast was intended to keep those hosts updated on the state of negotiations, so they can speak up, the company said.
As the matter flared up on social media, Airbnb initially doubled down on its criticism of Wu, issuing a statement late Tuesday that called her proposal “anti-tenant, anti-middle class.” But by Wednesday afternoon, after the dispute had made headlines and ricocheted through City Hall, the company was singing a more conciliatory tune.
“Airbnb supports the regulation of home sharing, which is why we’ve been working hand-in-hand with the City of Boston and local communities on reasonable rules for the last two years,” said spokeswoman Crystal Davis. “Our goal is and has always been to work in good faith.”
But they appear to have annoyed the very people they’ll be working with when the new regulations head back to City Council. Several members aired their dim view of Airbnb’s tactics on social media, while Wu, in tweets of her own, said “no one from Airbnb bothered to reach out” about her proposal and that, “spreading fake news doesn’t bode well” for any future partnership between Airbnb and the city.