Metro

adrian Walker

Here’s a deal — $36 a night for an Airbnb in Southie. One problem — it’s in a public housing unit

An Airbnb advertisement for a room in South Boston.
airbnb
An Airbnb advertisement for a room in South Boston.

The real estate advertisement is practically a love letter to South Boston — the real South Boston.

The room is two minutes from the beach, and a three-minute walk to the JFK station on the Red Line. It offers a “great location Geographically to stay and get anywhere in the city as well as outside the immediate City,” the Airbnb ad states.

At $36 a night, this is no luxury situation, and the landlord states pointedly that renters should not expect “contemporary anything.” But whatever the place might lack in fancy amenities, it more than makes up in character.

Advertisement

“This is a real (ungentrified) Boston neighborhood. With real people inhabiting it. Everyone from here in my courtyard was born and raised in Boston. Might be a couple people hanging around having a beverage, but when it comes down to it, they will look out for you more than themselves.”

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Oh, but there is one other thing — the rental is one bedroom in a unit of the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development, owned and operated by the Boston Housing Authority.

The appearance of the ad caused a stir when it showed up online last weekend. No one seems to be certain why that is, because the tenant has been renting the unit for quite some time. As of Monday, it had 131 reviews on the Airbnb site, dating back to 2016. Many of the reviews were glowing.

In other words, this tenant had found a wonderful side hustle, one that offers renters “Endless Tea,’’ Wi-Fi, a “Real Air Conditioner, not Fan’’ in the “oldest housing development” in the city.

But when city officials got wind of that situation a few days ago, they were anything but supportive. Boston Housing Authority chief Bill McGonagle immediately started the process of evicting the tenant, charging that turning the back bedroom of a housing unit into a rental constitutes a violation of his lease.

Advertisement

“At a minimum, it’s unreported income,” McGonagle said. That matters because the rent of public housing tenants is based on their income. Money under the table is almost always grounds for eviction. The tenant may also be subletting the unit, which would be an additional violation, McGonagle said.

But what about the enterprise of a tenant who sees an opportunity and makes the most of it?

“There is no prohibition on people using their apartments for a profit-making venture,” McGonagle said, citing the case of a tenant who opened a licensed day-care center in her unit in West Broadway. “Why would I want to stifle a resident who is entrepreneurial? This is different. He’s subletting. I’m not even sure he is living there. And that is clearly not the purpose of public housing.”

The tenant identified himself online as “James.’’ Housing officials declined to publicly identify him. Efforts to reach the tenant were unsuccessful.

Despite its dicey legal status, the tenant’s success in renting the unit seems to confirm something the BHA is counting on: that, public housing or not, the McCormack is indeed located in a fiercely desirable location.

Advertisement

That is important because the 1,016-unit development is slated to get the same overhaul that is planned for other aging BHA properties like Bunker Hill in Charlestown, which is being converted into a mixed-use development. Such plans depend on being able to attract market-rate tenants. If the place works as an Airbnb, without one bit of renovation, that makes the case for its desirability.

‘Not a luxury hotel, but a decent spot and we had no concerns or complaints. We walked to downtown and back a few times in the two days we were there, but it was a healthy distance.’

Of course, Airbnb itself is part of a raging controversy right now. Many argue that the service is taking desperately needed rental units out of circulation, and City Hall has vowed new regulations on the industry. So far, Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the City Council can’t agree on what regulations are needed, but the idea that a public housing unit can be rented out will only add to the tension.

Councilor Michelle Wu, who has led the charge to rein in Airbnb, said this unusual case only underscores the economic issues the city is facing. She said it needs to act quickly.

“The onus is on Boston to create reasonable regulations that define a vision of the city we want for everybody to live in,” Wu said. “Right now there’s nothing on the books and it leaves the door wide open.”

The tenant probably won’t be kicked out of his apartment for a while. The eviction process for public housing is cumbersome, involving a meeting, a grievance panel hearing, and ultimately a hearing in Suffolk Housing Court. The first step is a meeting with BHA officials.

“He will come in and he will explain himself or he won’t come in,” McGonagle said. “I think it’s possible that now that he’s been caught he’ll just head for the hills.”

Undeniably, the tenant’s side project is at odds with the mission of public housing. As Wu suggested when we talked, if he doesn’t need two bedrooms, his unit should go to a family that does.

And yet, I can’t help having some admiration for a tenant who figures out how to get a foot into the new economy.

Isn’t that just the kind of initiative poor people are often unfairly accused of not having?

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: adrian_walker.