After months of debate, the Boston City Council on Wednesday passed rules that are designed to sharply rein in Boston’s fast-growing short-term rental business and help ease the tight housing market.
The rules, which passed on an 11-to-2 vote, are among the most stringent efforts in the nation to regulate the burgeoning industry. The rules would bar investors and tenants from renting their homes by the night through popular websites such as Airbnb, while allowing homeowners and owner-occupants of two- and three-family houses to continue to do so.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who first proposed the bill in January, said he will sign it into law.
Supporters say they hope the measure will relieve pressure on a housing market where an estimated 2,000 apartments are being rented by the night to tourists, instead of through a traditional 12-month lease. The rules are not perfect, they acknowledged, but after nearly three years of studying the issue while short-term rentals proliferated, backers said it was time to move forward.
“Inaction is not an option,” said council member Kim Janey before the vote. “We need to do something to rein this in.”
The new rules take effect Jan. 1, but current short-term rental hosts will have until September 2019 to operate under the old system. That last-minute change was a concession to landlords worried about having a flood of apartments hit the market in the typically slow month of January, and to give the estimated hundreds of people working in the short-term rental industry more time to find new jobs.
After the council’s vote, conversation quickly turned to how to make sure the regulations are effective. In other cities, officials have had a difficult time enforcing such limits on short-term rentals.
“That’s going to be the next challenge,” said Steve Fox, president of the South End Forum neighborhood group and a leading advocate of the tighter regulations. “But it’s not rocket science. It’s a matter of finding the right vehicles and the right enforcement mechanism.”
The rules require short-term rental hosts to register with the city annually and to pay a $200 fee. City officials hope that registry, which will be publicly available, will provide a clearer picture of the scope and location of short-term rental activity in Boston, while also giving the city someone to contact if neighbors call with complaints about loud parties or sidewalks choked with wheelie bags. But not all council members were convinced.
“How are we going to count this?” asked council member Mark Ciommo, who voted against the bill. “How are we supposed to know if someone goes to Florida for two months and puts their apartment in Airbnb?”
The lack of good data has frustrated advocates on both sides of the issue, from activists who’ve researched Airbnb’s website to find out how many short-term rentals are in their neighborhoods, to Homeaway, a vacation-rental platform that criticized Wednesday’s action as the culmination of what was “not a fact-based process.”
It is hard to craft policy for an emerging industry without knowing how big it is, said council member Michael Flaherty, who helped hammer out a final version of the bill and voted in favor of it.
“Now we will actually have the data,” he said. “We’ll be able to adjust from there.”
Flaherty was one of several people involved in the debate to suggest that the regulations could soon be revisited, despite the lengthy process to get to this point. Sheila Dillon, Walsh’s chief of housing, said her office would be watching closely to see if short-term rental activity — and any related displacement of long-term tenants — lessens, or simply moves to new neighborhoods where small multifamily buildings would still be eligible for nightly rentals.
“This is a really good start,” Dillon said. “But we’re going to be evaluating the data closely and we’ll see what happens.”
People who operate short-term rentals also said it will take time to measure the effect of the regulations. Andrew Skalaban, owner of South End Hospitality — which manages about two dozen properties for small landlords — said he was disappointed by the vote, but he’s hoping to find a way to adjust.
“We might have to pivot our business,” said Skalaban, who heads the trade group Boston Host Alliance. “But we’re not going to turn off our Twitter account. We’re going to keep working on this.”
Still, for housing advocates who’ve watched short-term rentals boom in their neighborhoods, sometimes pushing out vulnerable renters in the process, the crackdown can’t come fast enough.
“We’re happy that finally, after three years of talking about this, we’re going in the right direction,” said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. “This is not going to fix our whole housing crisis, but it’s a start.”