On Tuesday, July 19 at 3:00pm the Cambridge City Council will hold a joint committee hearing to discuss the impact of short-term rental services like Airbnb. Residents are welcome to attend and to speak, or to submit written comments to the public record by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and cc’ing City Clerk Donna Lopez email@example.com. We are still in the process of gathering information, and no new regulations or changes to the zoning ordinance have yet been proposed.
I have used Airbnb a few times as a traveler but never as a host. I appreciate that many Cambridge residents enjoy being able to offer spare rooms to guests and that the extra income can be very helpful in a city like ours with a high cost of living. These are “hosted rentals” and are consistent with the values of the “sharing economy” — more efficient use of excess housing capacity and friendship/cultural exchange.
My greater concern is about absentee owners using Airbnb to rent whole units or houses exclusively on a short-term basis. (By “short-term” I mean guest stays of less than a month.) Such commercial use of Airbnb takes housing units off the traditional rental market and erodes the stability of residential neighborhoods. It may even exert an upward pressure on housing prices if financing decisions are made based on the ability to earn more income through short-term rentals. I’ve heard complaints from residents of condo buildings where absentee owners are renting their units through Airbnb (probably a violation of the condo by-laws) and of instances where entire apartment buildings are being emptied and used for short-term rentals. This is not “sharing” — it’s exploiting an unregulated market and in many instances these “hosts” are violating zoning laws, condo by-laws or subletting terms in leases.
One potential way to curb such practices would be to adopt regulations similar to those in San Francisco, where Airbnb hosts must be permanent residents. San Francisco also requires Airbnb hosts to register with the city and to pay a small ($50) license fee every 2 years, and imposes a 14% hotel/transient occupancy tax on short-term rentals. Massachusetts is considering a 5.7% tax on short-term rentals. San Francisco also limits to 90 days a year the amount of time residents can rent their entire home on a short-term basis when they are not physically present. In a university town Cambridge we would obviously want to preserve the ability for owners to offer leases of less than a year. San Francisco is now considering whether to require Airbnb to list only hosts who have registered with the city, or pay a hefty fine.
I’m interested to know what you think about how to approach regulating short-term rentals. Where would you draw the line?
A great many residents wrote or attended our July 19 committee hearing and to describe how they use Airbnb. (See agenda packet with presentation and other information.) Most of the comments came from owner-occupants who offer rooms or accessory units to guests to help cover expenses and/or to bridge gaps between longer-term tenants. Many appreciate the chance to act as “ambassadors” to visitors from all over the world. Some owner-occupants of multi-family houses wish to keep a unit un-leased so that it can remain available for visiting family (often grandparents), but they offer it on Airbnb at other times. The latter situation may argue against placing too stringent restrictions on the number of days a unit in an owner-occupied house can be rented through Airbnb.
Allowing owner-occupants the flexibility to host short-term guests seems reasonable and worth protecting. It may require some tweaks to our current zoning ordinance, however, because technically short-term rentals (those less than 31 days) are not allowed in many zoning districts, even if the owner is living there because they are classified as “tourist homes.” (Tourist homes are not allowed in Res A and Res B, but are allowed in Res C.) Another point that came up was the need for hosts to check their homeowner’s insurance policy to make sure the personal injury coverage extends to paying guests. Our outdated code also says that providing any food to a guest (even coffee and a bagel!) in a tourist home requires a food handler’s permit.
An executive from Airbnb answered some questions and is preparing detailed answers to others for the next hearing, which has been scheduled for August 3 at 3:00pm.
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA