Our Opinion: Seeking fairness in era of Airbnb

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The internet has opened new doors to make money that could not have been predicted only a few years ago, and when that revenue is significant it can create difficult circumstances that also could not have been foreseen. Massachusetts towns, like Lenox, are facing the latest dilemma: Short-term rentals that can be made online.

There is concern in Lenox that investors are buying homes to rent them to short-term visitors, primarily tourists. That is taking a bite out of the affordable home market in a town where the market is small to begin with (Eagle, June 6).

Individual homeowners already offer short-term rentals through Airbnb and other online services, which puts them in direct competition with local hotels and B&Bs. That level of competition will increase dramatically if homes are bought specifically to exploit this market.

Competition is at the heart of a capitalistic system, but the game should be played upon a level playing field. From taxes to licensing to permitting, the online short-term rental market isn't regulated by the same set of rules to which B&Bs and hotels have long adhered.

In Lenox, which depends heavily on tax revenue from its lodging industry, owners of B&Bs and small inns must collect an 11.6 percent state and local lodging tax. They also meet health and safety codes. Those who rent rooms or homes over the internet are not subject to taxation or regulations.

There are three bills before the Legislature addressing the issue. Beacon Hill is as concerned about lost lodging tax revenue as is the Lenox Planning Board, which is tackling the knotty issue. A bill in the House would impose a 5 percent state excise tax on short-term rentals and allow communities to impose their own tax up to 6 percent, which combined would approach the 11.6 percent tax on traditional lodgers.

The regulation aspect is less clear-cut. A recent statewide memorandum issued by the state Department of Public Health asserting that short-term rentals are subject to the same licensing and permitting codes as are traditional lodgings conflicts with the state building code, according to Planning Board member Tom Delasco. Clarity is plainly needed.

Taxing the short-term rental market is only fair to hotel owners and those who operate B & Bs, and it would provide needed revenue to towns and the state. This would address concerns that this practice is not only making it difficult for musicians and staff members from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to find lodging during the coming Tanglewood season it will, as Planning Board member Pam Kueber asserted, narrow a tight housing market for families who want to put roots down in Lenox and send their children to Lenox schools.

The reporting and bookkeeping mandates, however, could impose a considerable burden on those individuals who may only rent a room a few summer weekends a year. The state should consider establishing a minimum revenue number, with those in the short-term rental market who fall below it excluded from paying taxes.

The presence of the three short-term rental bills suggests that Beacon Hill is scrambling to catch up with the Airbnb phenomenon along with everyone else. Rather than hastily pass patchwork legislation, it would be preferable if the Legislature invited representatives of small and major hotels, the B&B industry, Airbnb and those who use Airbnb and similar services to Boston to describe their needs and problems. This dialogue should include discussion of where this trend will go — if major hotel chains begin buying houses for short-term rentals many communities will face a severe housing crisis.

The process of finding a level playing field in an industry that will continue to expand in unexpected ways begins with hearing from all the players in that industry and those impacted by it.


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