Editorial: New short-term rental law the right move by state

Published: 1/11/2019 10:04:54 AM
Modified: 1/11/2019 10:05:06 AM

Review the hundreds of Airbnb listings in the San Francisco area, home to the pioneering online lodging service, and you will find occasional alerts in red type noting the room has no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors.

And while we think Massachusetts can sometimes go overboard with regulation, we’ve seen enough fatal fires to appreciate the value of common sense safety measures like detectors, which apparently even progressive San Francisco cannot ensure for all its Airbnb rentals.

But safety is just one of the issues swirling around Airbnb and similar short-term lodging services that has led to our state’s first-in-the-nation regulation of the popular and growing business.

The law taxes Airbnb and similar operations just as regular hotel rooms are, and requires Airbnb to comply with local health, safety and zoning regulations, just as traditional bed and breakfasts must.

Gov. Charlie Baker said the law, which takes effect July 1, is an effort toward “leveling the playing field for short-term rental operators who use their properties as de facto hotels,” by applying the state’s 5.7 percent hotel and motel room tax to short-term accommodations rented out for 14 days a year or more.

In addition to the state tax, the law allows cities and towns to levy an additional 6 percent in local taxes. This is seen as a revenue generator and certainly must look good to traditional B&Bs and hotels who pay taxes now.

In some more urban areas, long-term tenants have complained about commercial-scale short-term rentals disrupting neighborhoods. Others are concerned Airbnb style rentals soak up available apartments that might otherwise serve as long-term affordable housing

That remains a concern as well in Franklin County and the North Quabbin area where, for example, regional Community Services Director Phoebe Walker says there appear to be “tons” of such rentals in Shelburne Falls, which is popular with tourists.

“It plays into the whole conversation of how many are entire apartments and studio apartments where a low-income person could live. There are so many places where people could live where people can’t live.”

But, ultimately, we believe people deserve to supplement their income, and it should be up to property owners to decide how to rent their property, long-term or short-term, online or off — as long as they comply with the same health, safety and zoning rules as do traditional lodging businesses. The new law goes a long way to clear up the confusion on this front.

Reasonable health and safety regulations are important for everyone — tenant and homeowner alike. Walker and others like to encourage Airbnb operators to get licensed and insured, by pointing out their potential liability.

“There are people trying to take Airbnb owners for everything they’ve got, saying something bad happened to them,” Walker cautioned recently.

Airbnb is pushing back, considering a legal challenge to the law, arguing its service is valuable and popular.

“People vote with their feet and they vote with their wallet,” said Andrew Kalloch, Airbnb’s head of policy for Massachusetts. “Home-sharing is here to stay because it offers fantastic economic value to guests and a fabulous economic opportunity to hosts.”

Airbnb’s 5,700 hosts in Massachusetts generated millions in income for the hosts, which is the flip side of the criticism: that short-term rentals can benefit many people who can use the extra income.

But, ultimately, we have to conclude our new law is the right way to go, because it’s not intended to shut down Airbnb-like rentals, but to ensure the safety of their tenants, just as we do with those who stay in our hotels and traditional lodging houses.

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