Editorial: Airbnb regulations should come down on the side of safety

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The state House and Senate are locked in a tug of war over short-term rentals — think, Airbnb-type businesses — and how they should be taxed and regulated. A compromise is now being worked on to reconcile conflicting House and Senate versions of a bill that addresses the issue, which has roiled the commonwealth ever since online platforms like Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO turned spare rooms into a cottage industry.

The House version (H-4314) would impose taxes ranging from 4 to 8 percent based on how many units a host offers and requires the Department of Revenue to maintain a short-term rental registry. Cities and towns would have the option to impose local excise taxes and to conduct a safety inspection on units being listed on the newly created registry.

“For the first time in Massachusetts,” said House Speaker Bob DeLeo, “we go beyond taxation and implement a necessary regulatory framework to ensure public safety and accountability.” Franklin County state Reps. Stephen Kulik, Paul Mark and Susannah Whipps all voted “Yes” to the House bill.

Subsequently, the state Senate scrapped the House’s three-tiered tax rates, simply extending the existing lodging tax of 5.7 percent to short-term rentals, and leaves regulations like registration, licensing or inspection up to municipalities.

The bill levels the playing field between currently untaxed and unregulated short-term rentals and hotels, motels and B&Bs that are currently regulated and taxed. State Sens. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer, whose district includes Athol), Adam Hinds (D-Pittsfield) and Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) voted “Yes” to S.2381.

To the good, both the House and Senate versions ensure that short-term rentals will henceforth be taxed by the state. The compromise will determine what that tax rate will be. This will generate millions of dollars in new revenue for the state and for local municipalities that impose their own taxes.

Also to the good is a data-sharing amendment in the Senate version that would give communities access to information like the total number of days a house or apartment is being rented and the location of each short-term rental.

It’s telling who supports the different versions: Airbnb has called the House bill “onerous and overly burdensome” and applauded the Senate bill, while the Massachusetts Lodging Association charged that the Senate “capitulated to Airbnb by failing to produce even the most basic of health, safety and consumer protections.”

It may be hard to believe, but older, substandard housing without two exits does exist and a fire blocking the only exit is a recipe for tragedy that is the stuff of nightmares for firefighters. House fires, food safety and sanitation issues are the pitfalls of unregulated short-term housing. This nascent industry is one tragedy away from even more stringent regulation.

We believe that the compromise version governing short-term rentals in Massachusetts needs to enhance transparency so that even the smallest towns in our county can easily locate and inspect short-term rental offerings to ensure consumer safety and, yes, to verify the tax rolls.