Brookline ponders short-term rental rules

Bryan Austin outside the Bertram Inn, one of his two properties on Sewall Street. Photo by Greg Levinsky/ BU News Service.

By Greg Levinsky
BU News Service

This article was previously published in the Brookline Tab

BROOKLINE — Most Brookline residents aren’t allowed to rent out their homes or private rooms on Airbnb, a practice many around the world have found lucrative. But some town officials are hoping to change the zoning by-law and allow everyone to partake in these short-term rentals.

Town planner Karen Martin said a meeting in mid-September helped plant the seeds for future change. She also said town officials are not oblivious to how some residents are renting out space on Airbnb despite the restrictions.

According to Brookline’s website, short-term rentals, defined as less than 30 days, are not permitted in current zoning by-laws.

Deputy Building commissioner Michael Yanovitch said there are close to 800 short-term rentals violating current zoning laws in Brookline, but because of the town’s small staff they are not aggressively cracking down. He said they look into it when someone complains.

“There’s a lot out there, but it’s complaint based,” Yanovitch said. “We go after them when people ask to.”

Although he did not attend the September meeting, the minutes show Yanovitch provided documents stating complaints have increased from once a month to one or two per week.

Zoning By-Law Committee member Cliff Brown said Brookline should tell Airbnb to not allow its services in the town, and possibly propose a fee.

Brookline Economic Development director Kara Brewton proposed to continue the discussion for potentially allowing short-term rentals.

Ultimately, the committee agreed staff will “have conversations with existing Airbnb hosts to better understand from the host perspective the current market, unit types, geography, length of stay, impact on their housing costs, type of unit owner, etc.”

Joyce, who declined to share her last name because she is active on Airbnb, rents out two rooms of her Coolidge Corner apartment. For the most part, she said, she has continued to live there while guests come and go.

On Oct. 17, there were nine Brookline properties listed on Airbnb. All were private rooms available in larger homes.

Joyce said she doesn’t see a problem with how she rents out rooms.

“Little old ladies like me who rent their rooms for spare money is a godsend for paying taxes in Brookline,” she said.

Crystal Davis, manager of public affairs and communication for Airbnb, said the company is willing to cooperate with municipal leadership to legalize short-term rentals on a town-by-town basis.

“If there’s ever any local government or lawmaker that wants to work with us to help develop fair and reasonable rules, we’re always willing to have conversations with them,” Davis said.

Courtyard by Marriott Boston Brookline general manager Catherine Stevens said she’s not overly worried about a potential influx of short-term rentals should the town change zoning laws to allow for Airbnb.

“Competition is competition,” Stevens said. “We’re mostly concerned when a new hotel goes up.”

According to Bryan Austin, owner of Brookline’s Bertram and Samuel Sewall Inn, fall is the busiest time of year. Located across from each other on Sewall and St. Paul streets, the bed & breakfasts have a combined 37 rooms.

At first, Austin said he was unaware of the law banning short-term rentals. In fact, Austin said he sometimes advertises up to four rooms on Airbnb, which for him is legal because his properties are permitted by the town as a lodging destination. It also provides him a distinct advantage.

“That’s kinda good for me, it drives my competition out I guess,” said Austin, who purchased Bertram in 1987 and Samuel Sewall in 2001.

Stevens said short-term renters tend to be different than their clientele at a Marriott property. However, she said, they post on hoteltonight.com when same-day rooms are available.

“I think the Airbnb customer is the Airbnb customer,” Stevens said. “You might have a lower rate, but you’re not getting the [same] service.”

Airbnb has no qualms about Austin’s type of usage, either.

“We’re actually fine with that,” Davis said. “We know there are a lot of inns, bed and breakfasts and corporate housing owners because they get initial visibility.”

Martin said Brookline officials will revisit this issue in the near future, most likely after the new year, potentially paving the way for Brookline residents to rent their entire homes or individual rooms on Airbnb.

“We’re not necessarily against it,” Yanovitch said.

However, he said, it’s understandable that some people want to keep their neighborhood residential rather than have something like a hotel next door.

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