In Cambridge, An Airbnb Backlash

July 15, 2016

For many modern travelers, it’s become an almost automatic part of any journey. You figure out where you’re going—then book your lodgings through Airbnb.

As the short-term rental service tells it, its customers get to experience far-flung locales from a truly local point of view. Case in point: this slick promotional video, which exhorts: “Don’t ‘go’ to Paris. Don’t ‘tour’ Paris. And please, don’t ‘do’ Paris. Live in Paris.”

But on Essex Street in Cambridge, just outside of Central Square, the Airbnb picture is a bit more complicated.

Nancy Ryan is an officer with the Essex Street Neighbors Association. She lives just around the corner from 35 Essex Street—a triple-decker Ryan describes as a full-time destination for short-term books through Airbnb and similar service, with nine separate rooms available.

“We used to have full-time neighbors here,” Ryan says, standing in front of the property’s scruffy front yard. “They didn’t own the place, but they took pride in it, and they actually kept up the yard.”

There was no official announcement of the property’s conversion to short-term use, Ryan tells me—but it was easy to figure out.

“You see taxis coming and going all the time, people dragging luggage up and down the street all the time,” she says.

“Our neighbors next door, who are two women, were getting knocks on their door at midnight, people who’d pulled up in a cab or walking up from the Red Line.”

(The owner of the property tells WGBH News that he’s shifting away from short-term to longer-term rentals, and that he may move into 35 Essex Street himself in the near future. He also said he’s sympathetic with the concerns raised by Ryan and other neighbors, and that he never intended to use 35 Essex Street as a dedicated short-term rental property.)

Ryan insists that she’s fine with Airbnb in moderation. In fact, she says, she has friends who rent out rooms in their homes. But she’s not happy to have what she calls a de facto hotel as a new neighbor.

“There are no regulations about buildings like this,” Ryan says. “That means we don’t know who’s coming and going. Safety is important to us: we’ve got tons of children here, and we want to know who’s around.”

Concerns like that have a special resonance in Cambridge—which, according to research from City Councilor Craig Kelley’s office, packs about 700 unique Airbnb listings into just over seven square miles—about 4.9 times the density of Airbnb’s presence in Boston.

Right now, Cambridge is weighing new regulations for Airbnb and similar services—something that’s also underway at the state level.

“It’s certainly a contributing factor to the rising cost of housing, especially in the downtown neighborhoods I represent,” State Representative Aaron Michlewitz says of Airbnb and similar services. “You have units that are being rented out on a daily basis, no one’s living in them, and they’re taking up housing stock that could be potentially being used by someone who wants to be invested in the community.”

Michlewitz’s district spans the heart of Boston, from the North End to Chinatown to the South End. Last year, he filed legislation to tax and regulate Airbnb and similar services. The bill would also impose safety standards, and make owners show they’ve lived in the place they’re renting for at least 60 days.

While the bill still hasn’t become law, Michlewitz says he’s optimistic that the industry will be regulated in the not-too-distant future.

“Some of my colleagues were intrigued—they didn’t know as much about it,” he says. “Just ike a lot of the tech economy stuff that we’re facing here in the Commonwealth… we want to allow these industries to thrive and grow but we also want to put proper consumer protection and safety measures in place.”

Until the state takes that step, cities and towns will have to take the regulatory lead. Back in Cambridge, Nancy Ryan says her area’s long-term livability is at stake.

“We want to leave our house to our kids—we want them to be able to live here,” Ryan says. “So it’s worth the fight. You just do what you can to keep your neighborhood a real neighborhood.”

The Cambridge City Council’s public safety and housing committees are scheduled to hold a joint hearing on short-term rentals on Tuesday, July 19, from 3-5 pm.

 


WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top