Airbnb may model Bay State strategy on winning San Francisco campaign

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San Francisco voters rejected a proposal to rein in Airbnb and other online rental services that have siphoned business from hotels in major cities around the nation, and the company may use its campaign there to model strategies for other markets where restrictions have been proposed, including Boston.

In part, that strategy cast the issue as one that pitted homeowners against big hotel companies. It also employed volunteer canvassers and drew support from small businesses.

“Voters stood up for middle-class families’ right to share their home and opposed an extreme, hotel industry-backed measure,” Airbnb’s Chris Lehane said in a statement once the voting results were known. The ballot proposal lost with 55 percent of voters opposing it, according to unofficial results reported by USA Today.

“It was made possible by the 138,000 members of the Airbnb community who had individual conversations with over 105,000 voters, knocked on 285,000 doors, including 55,000 today, and worked to generate support from more than 2,000 small, family-owned businesses in the city,” Lehane said. “This effort shows that home sharing is both a community and a movement.”

The San Francisco ballot measure was designed to limit short-term rentals of apartments and other spaces to no more than 75 days a year, and would have imposed city hotel occupancy taxes as well. It also would have let neighbors bring “private action lawsuits” against violators, according to, a political research organization in Madison, Wisconsin.

The proposal was supported by hotel workers’ unions as well as community advocates concerned about soaring residential rental values and home prices in the city, according to Ballotpedia. It said Airbnb devoted more than $8 million to fight the measure.

In Massachusetts, a proposal is pending in the House that would require people who want to rent out their living space on a short-term basis to register, obtain a license and pay taxes on the payments they receive. The state excise tax rate would be 5 percent, while it would give cities and towns the option to impose a local tax of up to 6 percent or 6.5 percent in Boston.

“We want to continue to be partners with governments to craft fair, progressive rules for home sharing that support the middle class and allow cities to address issues that are important to their community,” Lehane said. But he also sent a signal to people who rent out space over the Airbnb website: “We are excited to work with you to educate policymakers and community leaders in cities and towns around the world about the benefits of home sharing.”

The proposal pending in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, from state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz (D-Boston), would impose steep civil penalties, at $1,000 a day,  on those who fail to comply with the licensing, record-keeping and tax payment rules, at $1,000 a day, according to the language of his proposal, H 2618, which would also bar businesses from renting out residential units.

The bill would also force online platforms such as Airbnb to maintain records of taxes owed and demonstrate that the taxes have been paid on space in Massachusetts that is rented through their sites, and subject them to the same $1,000 a day penalties for failure to comply. It would also give cities and towns the option to ban short-term rentals outright.

At a Revenue Committee hearing on the measure in May, Michlewitz said one of his concerns is preventing real estate owners from constantly renting out a residential property on a short-term basis and never living in the unit, the State House News Service reported. His bill would require those offering a residence for short-term rental to document to local authorities that the space is their primary residence and that they have occupied it for at least 60 days before making it available to renters. The record-keeping rules would also require occupants to document the number of days they actually lived in the unit each year.

The bill would require renters who use Internet sites like Airbnb to offer short-term rentals of their space to inform the apartment or condominium owner of that intent. And it would bar occupants who lease or rent a space from collecting more per day from a short-term renter than they themselves pay in rent to a landlord.

Michlewitz’s bill would also establish insurance coverage minimums, requirements to adhere to building codes and safety standards and record-keeping rules as well.