What happened when our city wanted to regulate short-term rentals

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Newton, MA

What happened when our city wanted to regulate short-term rentals

I wanted to share what happened in our city, as you may find it helpful if your town attempts to regulate STRs. We live in Newton, Massachusetts, in the U.S., which is a city of 80,000 immediately adjacent to Boston. It is a wealthy, largely residential city, although it has many village centers and all forms of public transportation.


Two things prompted the regulation:
1) Massachusetts enacted a state-wide tax on STRs, requiring each host to register, and each city to also add a local tax
2) Four properties in our city were purchased and used exclusively for short-term rentals. These were not owner-occupied and were major nuisances to the neighborhood, often being used for parties and commercial events (even an opera!)


The Zoning and Planning committee (ZAP) asked the planning department to draft local ordinances, with the problematic properties being the main focus. The initial draft proposed many limitations, including limiting total nights you could rent to 21 per year. Their thinking was that people only did STRs as investment properties and "regular people" only did it occasionally, like renting out your house for the Boston Marathon (which runs through our city) or something like that.


Someone from the planning department contacted Airbnb, who then contacted some local hosts to let them know this was happening and to encourage us to come to the public comment hearing and share our perspective. This was CRUCIAL to turning the tide. Most city councilors had no idea that "regular" folks were using STRs to help pay their mortgage, their taxes, etc., so they can stay in their homes. We shared many of these stories and no one commented that they were against STRs in general, just these "party houses."


It soon became clear that there was a big distinction between "owner-occupied" and "absentee owners" and the regulations evolved to only allow owner-occupied STRs. This would ban the problematic properties and show this was meant as supplementary income and not an investment vehicle.


The political process was lengthened extensively by one ZAP committee member who used every procedural trick in the book to try and limit things. He missed the ZAP meeting where the updated ordinances were approved and then forced it back to committee before the council could vote on it in full. He then lobbied in vain for a number of limiting amendments at the next ZAP meeting and at the full city council meeting. Ultimately he was unable to gain enough support and all of his amendments failed. When the council finally voted, it was unanimously in favor of the ordinances.


Hosts didn't get everything they might have wanted, however. The new regulations limit things to a maximum of three bedrooms and nine guests, we must inform neighbors that we're hosts and there's a complaint-driven system where you could lose your registration for a year. You also cannot rent out anything that would be considered housing stock - including accessory apartments. If it has a separate entrance and a full kitchen, it's completely ineligible to be a STR.

Other than emailing us about a couple of the meetings, Airbnb did nothing to support these efforts. You might have thought they would lobby pretty hard given that may Boston suburbs have made STRs illegal and Boston itself has very strict regulations, but they didn't send a representative or give us talking points or anything.


So, the moral of the story is: If your city hasn't regulated yet, pay attention. If they are in the process, be part of the process - write emails, offer public comment, attend the hearings, read the minutes, etc. Our local community of hosts are responsible for saving STRs in our city, no one else was going to fight our battle for us.

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