Boston Proper neighborhood groups call for ban on investor-owned Airbnb units in the city

Investors are snapping up condos in the heart of Boston like nobody's business, and Mayor Walsh's proposed regulations wouldn't do enough to stop them from squeezing out people who actually want to live in the city, according to a study by a consortium of neighborhood groups.

Some 70% of the Airbnb listings in "downtown" neighborhoods - Downtown, Back Bay, Bay Village, Beacon Hill, Chinatown, the Fenway, the North End, the South End and the West End - are owned by investors, a far higher percentage than in New York, San Francisco and London, according to a study released yesterday by the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations.

The alliance estimates there are currently about 1,730 total units in the neighborhoods available for short-term stays, and currently unregulated by the city.

Last month, Walsh proposed restrictions and fees on owners of units available for short-term stays, with the fees ranging from $25 a year for people who actually live in their units but occasionally rent out a room to $500 per unit for condos owned by investors. The proposal is now before the City Council for hearings.

The alliance argues that doesn't go far enough; that the city should ban investor-owned nightly apartment/condo rentals entirely, as some cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, have done.

In a statement, alliance Chairman Ford Cavallari says:

Many good, hard-working Boston residents are using AirBnB to help make the rent or pay the mortgage. This ordinance, however, overlooks the serious difference between residential owners listing their units short-term, and professional investors and speculators looking to exploit our market. Boston residents should be treated differently than investors, but they are treated exactly the same in the proposed ordinance. This needs to change. ...

These high numbers of multi-unit listers (aka investors) clearly demonstrate that AirBnB ownership in Boston is more a business than a residential pursuit. Boston should do what most other large cities, like San Francisco, LA, Portland and New York City are doing, and eliminate all investor units in the nightly market. If we want to save our housing stock, the formula is simple. Fewer investor-controlled AirBnB-type units means more affordable, available long-term housing.

Other findings in the alliance report:

  • Most Airbnb listings - 62% citywide, 85% in Boston Proper - are for entire units, not just single rooms.
  • 60% of all Boston listings are for investor units.
  • Investors make up only 7% of the total Airbnb listing owners, but their properties make up 60% of the city's whole-unit Airbnb inventory.
  • In Boston Proper, just 2% of the total listed owners account for almost 40% of whole-unit listings.



Free tagging: 


Maybe I'm getting too old school or something

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But "Boston Proper" basically refers to the neighborhoods that have most always been Boston back to colonial days - so the North End, but not Brighton; Downtown but not Roslindale. Seemed more appropriate than the "Downtown" in the alliance's name, since the Back Bay isn't downtown (it's not, technically, "Boston Proper," either, since it was underwater during colonial days, but, hey, Boston Geography is the fun game the whole family can play!).


Not only that...

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n (it's not, technically, "Boston Proper," either, since it was underwater during colonial days, but, hey, Boston Geography is the fun game the whole family can play!).

The Back Bay itself was part of Roxbury. Boston and Roxbury shared a water border at about where Arlington St is today. It was pushed back to about Lenox Street at some point in the early Nineteenth Century, as the new South End and Back Bay were being developed (and later dissolved in the 1870s when Roxbury was annexed onto Boston). Strangely, I regularly receive mail addressed to Roxbury, MA 02118 at my home in the South End, even though the last time the South End was a part of Roxbury, the Back Bay was as well. I can imagine the protestations that would ensue if mail addressed in the 20116 ZIP Code was ever marked as "Roxbury".


Boston Proper (capitalized) refers to a specific place, namely the neighborhoods listed in Adam's write-up. "Boston Proper" is a proper noun, a name used for an individual person, place, or organization, spelled with initial capital letters.

Boston proper (lowercase) refers to the entire City of Boston just like it would for any other municipality because "proper" is a common noun. Lowercase "proper" here is defined as belonging or relating exclusively or distinctively to; particular to.

The Back Bay itself was part

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The Back Bay itself was part of Roxbury. Boston and Roxbury shared a water border at about where Arlington St is today.

Nope. About where Arlington st is today was underwater - Boston Common edged into the back bay originally, and all of the Public Garden land is filled in.
. And the neck of land connecting Boston to the mainland was called Boston Neck, not Roxbury Neck. In the Colonial era, the border between the two towns was well down towards the mainland - which explains how Boston could hang men by the neck on the Neck. I recommend the 1788 Thomas Conder map that's available on the Norman Leventhal Map Center BPL web site.

Okay, it may have been closer to Berkeley Street

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And I direct you to Walter Muir Whitehill's book Boston: A Topographical History, which goes into pretty extensive detail of Boston's various expansions through annexation and filling, etc over the centuries. The Back Bay may have been an actual bay full of water (at high tide at least) before it was filled, but it was Roxbury's bay, hence the water border between Boston and Roxbury.

You're not old school adam, you're just (in this case) incorrect

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But you're in plenty of company. We've already been over this several times at UH.

[City] proper means *the whole of the territory occupied by [City]* - here and elsewhere, and has for ages. And people have been using it incorrectly here and elsewhere for a while. Go google the term 'city proper' or look on a few hyperlocal sites for other regions and you'll see the same misuse and back-and-forth babble all over the place - this isn't a Boston-only thing.

My opinion (from admittedly limited research, obvs) is that much of the confused use seem to have appeared during the late 20th cen. Perhaps the term is a handy dog whistle for those who wish to make a distinction between the built-up central sections of a city and its less-populated marches, without using terms already loaded with pretty obvious connotations like 'downtown' or 'inner city'.

Rationalizing and propagating incorrect usage may save some face in the short term, but it doesn't overall serve the purpose of greater understanding and informed discussion.

Adam is correct and local usage matters

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Do an advanced Google book search for the term "Boston proper" between 1860 and 1880. You'll find the City of Boston's own publications began using "Boston proper" to distinguish the original core neighborhoods from the newly annexed ones. That's been local usage in Boston since at least that time.

Literary origins

I think there's an exception to the [City] proper rule here because other cities don't have a novel titled The Proper [City]ians as we do with The Proper Bostonians. So I'm pretty much in agreement with the grammar rule above that you can use the term to mean the municipality of Boston but many times the connotation is that you are talking only about the older upper class areas of the city.

Capitalization when written can make it clear but it can get fuzzy when spoken as you're depending only on context.


There are two zoning districts called "Boston Proper".

Condo Associations

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HOA's have been able to create a by-law to limit sublets to a minimum of 6 months, where breaking the policy incurs a fine to the condo association. The HOA's pass the bylaw using the restriction coming from the HOA's insurance policy for the building.

two ways to enforce within the HOA - trolling the websites and through a door(man) person's observation

They are often buying whole

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They are often buying whole buildings and taking all the units off the long term rental markets.


Who are "they"

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And where are these all-air bnb apartment buildings?

That sounds like a zoning issue.

At which point they'rerunning a hotel.

They are often buying whole buildings and taking all the units off the long term rental markets.

At which point they're unambiguously running a hotel, and subject to the building safety and other regulations designed to protect hotel guests, and to the land use restrictions designed to protect neighborhoods.... Enforcing existing laws would go a long way here.


That plan backfires when the

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That plan backfires when the doorman is being paid a small fee by the Airbnb operator to help them (which happened in my building).

The ship on short-term

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The ship on short-term rentals has already sailed. Government can't stop it. The only way for government to manage it is using taxes and fees.

The fees being discussed by the city council are obscenely low. Raise the proposed fee by two orders of magnitude. Assess and tax investor-owned short term rental units the same as hotels. At least that will spread the wealth.


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This isn't like prostitution where you have to really work to find advertising for the "goods". Take some of the money from new regulations/taxes and hire a couple of people to scour the rental websites and track down the ones that aren't playing by the rules.

I grew up in a tourist town that banned short-term rentals a couple years back. If you look on any of the rental sites, you won't find one that is located within the town where the ban is in place. It can work very easily.


How about limiting to one

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How about limiting to one investor unit per person or some other cap? Is it really necessary to ban it completely?

Wouldn't solve the problem

I own this one.
My wife owns that one.
My mother owns the one over there.
My father owns the one next to it.
My dog owns the corner unit.
etc. etc.

And that doesn't even get into the whole shell/holding company game, etc.


Don't need to do that

My friend from Southie said her neighbor let a company manage his empty apartment and they used it for AirBnb. That would make it pretty hard to detect if you just looked large numbers of properties owned by one source.


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Air BnB is popular for several reasons, but one is that it's significantly cheaper than downtown hotels. One way to fix this: increase the supply of, ahem, Boston proper hotels. Big, tall, many-room-havin' hotels. Mixed use hotel and residential. Any hotels.

Add to the supply of hotels in Boston and the room rate will steady or decline a bit. That will put the squeeze on Air BnB host-as-a-business folks, pushing some of those units back into residential housing.

Where to build these new hotels? Easy! Just look at where there are lots of Air BnB offerings, and build near that!

well, how would you pay for it?

You can rent a nice hotel room in downtown boston this saturday night for $140-180. You can get whole apartment rental on AirBnB for the same price. You can rent a private room on AirBnB for $40. That looks like market saturation to me. I am not sure how any of these people are making money. It hardly seems worth it to have a stranger in your house for $40. Although, i guess with AirBnB, you have the option of only being available at surge pricing times like Marathon Weekend.

But if things keep going like this the hotel industry isn't going to build another hotel. They actually can jump into the investment property game, and use their existing hotels as a base to provide amenities.

People vs Capital

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Without further regulation, today's city is not a place for people but a place for capital. City leaders like Walsh are much more inclined to favor capital investment in the city than to act in favor of the citizens themselves. Hence Boston 2024, Indy Race, Amazon, etc.

Even this AirBnB regulation does almost nothing to help your average citizen, it's a thin veil of regulation that doesn't actually get to the problem of investors buying massive quantities of units that are then taken off the housing market.

For all of the housing crisis talk from Walsh, he is still praying Amazon and their 50,000 employees move here.



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Walsh got housing production going like never before, jacked up the required affordable units, and up zoned for density along the red and orange lines.
A couple thousand high-end units downtown going to investors is a problem but it's barely impacting most folks.

It seems like at some point

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It seems like at some point there will be a reckoning for airbnb in many cities across the U.S.

Boston is unique because of it's incredibly small size, considering there was already a dearth of available real estate even before the vacation rental sites started becoming popular.

TL/DR version:

Bethlehem, a nearby town where I live in PA, is currently cracking down pretty hard on airbnb rentals. Rightfully so, they're mostly attempting to protect the units leased in the historical districts, and attempting to enact laws that prohibit the amount of time throughout the year in which the unit can be leased. The property must be occupied by the actual owner more than it's rented.

I'm not sure how any of this will shake out, or how it might be enforced by law, but this could be the one issue in which I'd actually support Nimbyism.

If I were someone who plunked down $600k on a South End condo, only to find out that my neighboring units are a turnstile of out-of-town guests, I'd be incredibly annoyed – especially when some of those guests are likely to be rowdy bachelor and bachelorette parties.

I was recently at bachelor party with 12 other guys in a giant, beautiful, 4-story brownstone deep in the South End. Although it was a respectable group of guys, most nights we were far from quiet. I definitely felt bad for the nearby units that might have actually been occupied by real life Boston residents, who may have had to work in the morning. Considering I nearly purchased a condo on that same quiet block a handful of years ago, it felt odd to party the way we did in that part of the neighborhood.

These investor-owned properties are a something that definitely need to be addressed. I'd hate to see such a large percentage of gorgeous properties be destroyed over the years by an endless parade of temporary guests. And that's not even to factor in what it does for the community.

Quite frankly,

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I'm of the opinion that just buying up condos for investment, as opposed to living in them, should never, ever be allowed. That happened a great deal in the 1980's, and no good ever came of it, either.