Polly Malcolm, 82, lives alone in her three-story house on Sparks St. in Cambridge, Mass.. About five years ago, she got a call from her old college roommate asking if Malcolm could accommodate a friend who needed a place to be in Cambridge for a couple of nights. Malcolm agreed. It turned out to be Malcolm’s first bed and breakfast rental.
“I like meeting people and welcoming them into my home. It brings life in this big house,” Malcolm said. Now she’s part of a vast network of private homeowners who have joined Airbnb, a company that encourages those with an empty bed or house to “monetize your extra space.”
The Boston area saw the number of people renting their room; apartments and houses on Airbnb grow consistently over the past years. But Airbnb, Uber and other services that have emerged as part of the so-called sharing economy, don’t fall under laws regulating hotels or taxicabs. Lawmakers in Massachusetts and elsewhere are working on finding suitable regulations.
On March 2, the City of Boston held a public meeting at the Public Library to discuss the pros and cons of having Airbnb rentals regulated. Eleanor Joseph, advisor to the Mayor, said “the next step is that we are going to take the feedback that we heard at that meeting and put together a potential draft of policy.”
Joseph said that 31 members of the community spoke at the meeting. 27 of them were in favor of the home sharing industry and four were against. People who were in favor of Airbnb generally mentioned that it allows them to meet people from all over the world, it allows them earn so extra money and to invest in their properties.
“Some people thought that there is no room for government involvement and that it should be left unregulated, other people thought that there should be some form of regulation and it would be reasonable for the government to make people register or sign up for the city to know that they are renting places,” Joseph said.
Airbnb was founded in August of 2008 in San Francisco, Calif. One can read on the Airbnb “About Us” section: “Whether an apartment for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month, Airbnb connects people to unique travel experiences, at any price point, in more than 34,000 cities and 190 countries.”
But four years ago, she decided to give Airbnb a try. Currently, she only uses Airbnb and said she couldn’t find anything bad to say about it.
Ellen, who rents a room in the South End, didn’t wish to have her last name revealed because her neighbors don’t feel comfortable with having strangers in the building they live in. “There are occasional robberies in the neighborhood so they just don’t want strangers in the building,” Ellen said.
Despite her neighbors’ reluctance, Ellen chose to welcome guests anyway. “Nobody knows.” She doesn’t do it very often and selects her guests very carefully.
And Ellen’s neighbors are not the only ones who feel uncomfortable with Aribnb. Joseph said that people who were against Airbnb mainly shared that they didn’t feel safe having strangers wandering up and down the hallways.
Just as Ellen, Malcolm isn’t sure what the regulations might be. “I don’t know of any Massachusetts laws about [renting a room]. We are in a private house, where the owner lives and the house so I don’t think there are any regulations,” she said.
Attorney Richard D. Vetstein, real estate lawyer in Massachusetts, said that neither Massachusetts or the City of Boston know how they are going to regulate this fairly new phenomenon.
“The problem is that [Airbnb] is a new disruptive technology and idea, so there aren’t many regulations that apply to it yet and that’s the dilemma for lawmakers. They have to figure out whether they are going to regulate it or not and if they do, [figure out] what’s reasonable and what’s going to work,” Vetstein said.
The Airbnb “Help” page for Boston, gives guidelines for what homeowners should be looking at before they put their room, apartment or house on the website for rental. Airbnb lists six categories for Boston.
Business registration. Zoning code. Rental registration. Lodging house licensing. Taxes. Other rules.
When asked about Airbnb regulations, Melina Schuler, Senior Media Liaison for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, said in an email that “online short term home rental services, such as Airbnb, are subject to local licensure as a bed and breakfast,” and “The City of Boston has a cross departmental team looking into short term home rental services, like Airbnb, which is examining existing statutes and looking at other cities’ best practices for guidance.”
Lisa Timberlake, the Boston Inspectional Services (ISD) spokeswoman, said that the Commissioner of the ISD issued a temporary policy telling its inspectors not to issue citations to homeowners who are using online short-term home rental services while an internal group works on policy recommendations.
Lawyer Vetstein said that as long as there are no specific law, Airbnb guests are legally considered as tenants and hosts as landlords, but they either don’t realize it or don’t care.
“A lot of the Airbnb hosts are not keen on complying any legal requirement. They kind of think they are above the law. Same goes for Uber and Lyft, they think that their technology is so new and unique that the law doesn’t apply to them,” Vetstein said.
The Copley House is a short-term apartment rental company. Christian Moen, the Copley House manager and Gregg Bolduc, director of sales and marketing at the Midtown Hotel, said that Airbnb doesn’t affect their businesses. “What [customers] get in here is security, they have a 24-hour service, there is always somebody to handle their needs and that’s not what they get with Airbnb obviously,” Bolduc said.
When Ellen was told about possible regulations, she said she would probably stop renting her apartment. On the contrary, Malcolm said that she will take a closer look at them and make sure that she follows them. “I like being an Airbnb host and I will do it as long as I can,” she said.