City Council Passes Ordinance Cracking Down on Short-Term Rentals

Somerville Board of AldermenPhoto by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

The City Council passed an ordinance last week that regulates short-term rentals like Airbnbs in an effort to protect the city’s residential rental stock.

The main crux of the ordinance is that people can only rent out their primary residence. This means an owner or renter can put rooms in their unit up for short-term rental while they’re on vacation or if they have spare bedrooms, but they must live in that unit for at least nine months a year.

The ordinance will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

There are an estimated 800 to 1,300 short-term rentals in the city, according to City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen. Those numbers have significant impact on the city’s housing supply.

“The amount of Airbnbs in Somerville is not trivial,” Ewen-Campen says. “If you think about all of the energy that our administration has put into creating new housing stock, this is basically just wiping that out, like running the wrong way on a down escalator. You’re just actively removing our existing stock from the rental market, solely for the profits.”

Short-term, full-unit rentals were already forbidden under the Somerville Zoning Ordinance, but this vote represents the city’s commitment to enforce the rules, according to Ewen-Campen.

Previously, illegal short-term rentals were often only enforced if they became a problem and neighbors reported them, Ewen-Campen explains. The city plans to use a service that scans postings on websites like Airbnb to seek out illegal listings, he says.

Somerville’s ordinance differs from other cities’ approaches in two main ways. The first is eliminating the rental of adjacent units, which cracks down on those who profit more from short-term rentals than from leasing out their building.

The second is the decision to not create a city registry of all short-term rentals, which places such as Cambridge have adopted, in an effort to remove “onerous” requirements for residents, City Councilor Matthew McLaughlin explains.

“It’s the toughest, yet the fairest law out there right now,” McLaughlin says. “The requirements are tougher on the people that we want to be tough on, but they’re looser on the people that we want to be easy on.”

The ordinance establishes a $300 fine per day on violations.