Friday, February 16, 2018

Boston City Council Looks At AirBnBs, Flooding, MBTA Assessment Fees Survey & More

City Councilor-At-Large Michelle Wu publishes notes from Boston City Council meetings. The Boston City Council considered the following items and more at their February 14, 2018  meeting:

City Audit Update: Former Councilor Larry DiCara, in his capacity as Chairman of the Audit Committee, sent an update to the Council on meetings held with independent auditors KPMG. The results state that the City is in strong financial condition for the fiscal 2017 year. Boston continues to be heavily dependent on property taxes for its general fund revenues (about 69%), and new revenue from a robust construction market has resulted in growth exceeding the annual increase limitations of Proposition 2½. Should market growth slow in future years, the City could experience reductions in property taxes and find difficulty funding increases in spending for current service levels. The report suggests the City should continue to explore ways to make service delivery more efficient and effective in an effort to maintain costs while meeting the service needs of the City’s constituency. The Committee also believes that the employee recruitment and retention and succession planning must remain an operation focus of the City, with many employees considering retirement or other opportunities. With regards to the the use of student activity accounts at Boston Public Schools, the Committee believes that BPS should develop and enforce standardized District-wide policies and procedures over the establishment, use, record-keeping, and monitoring of these accounts and any other accounts established for funds received by individual schools. The Committee believes that a level of accountability for such funds needs to be firmly imparted on those responsible for their maintenance and use. The complete report is available here.

Short-term Residential Rentals: Councilor Flaherty reported back on yesterday’s 5-hour hearing on short-term rental platforms such as AirBnB. The goal on all sides is to stabilize neighborhoods because unregulated short-term rentals lead to long-term tenants being displaced for corporations to exploit a loophole to operate de facto hotels in our neighborhoods. Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon testified yesterday that the City had identified 2000 high-impact listers, with units listed more than 235 days per year. Even just returning these units to residential housing would significantly increase the vacancy rate to help stabilize or bring down rents. The Association of Downtown Civic Organizations has researched the issue thoroughly, with data showing that our downtown short-term rental offerings are more densely concentrated than in New York City, and developers of new residential buildings are routinely reserving units to lease to companies that operate short-term rentals full-time. This reduces the supply of stable rental units, displaces long-term tenants, and drives up our already-high housing prices. No one is saying that we should ban AirBnB outright, as many homeowners rely on renting out a spare bedroom or their entire unit when on vacation to help pay the mortgage. However, we must act quickly to close corporate loopholes. As a review, the proposed ordinance recognizes three different categories of units:
  • Limited Share Units: a partial residential unit e.g. bedroom or shared space offered for rent while the resident is present (limited to 3 bedrooms or 6 guests, with 1 bedroom occupied by the resident) – no limit on how many days these can be rented out; $25 registration fee
  • Home Share Units: an entire residential unit offered for rent while the primary resident is away (limited to 5 bedrooms or 10 guests) – primary residency is defined as residing there for at least 9-months of the year, effectively putting a 3-month limit on the number of days able to rent; $100 registration fee
  • Investor Units: an entire unit offered by someone who is not primary resident (limited to 5 bedrooms or 10 guests) – limited to 90 days of rental per year; $500 registration fee
Certain types of residential units would NOT be eligible for short-term rentals, including those designated as below-market or income-restricted; those designated as “Problem Properties” by the City; and those with 3+ findings of violations in 6-months of the short-term rental regulations or 3+ violations within 6 months of any city or state law relating to noise, trash, or disorderly conduct. Enforcement would be complaint-based with ISD able to impose fees of $300 per violation per day for offering an ineligible unit, and $100 per violation per day for failure to comply with a notice of violation.
Many residents testified at the hearing that Boston should significantly curtail the “investor unit” category to close a large loophole that companies will use to displace long-term tenants. Even with the 90-day limit, a corporation could buy a building, rent it out 45 weekends of the year (Friday and Saturday nights) and perhaps make enough money to keep it as AirBnB-only. Several residents cautioned against too harsh of a restriction though, citing that AirBnB helped them rent out extra units in their owner-occupied buildings in neighborhoods further from downtown, where otherwise they would have difficulty finding a long-term tenant. ISD Commissioner Buddy Christopher also emphasized that property owners would still be able to seek an occupancy change to Bed and Breakfast or Lodging House through standard processes. The matter remains in the Government Operations Committee for further working sessions. Because this is an ordinance from the Mayor, it is a 60-day order that requires Council action in that timeframe (even if the action is to reject without prejudice for a refiling with a new 60 days). Read the ordinance
here. For a good summary of the issue, read this article.

Protecting Local Small Businesses: Councilor Janey gave her first speech on the Council floor today, filing a hearing order to discuss barriers to and opportunities for small businesses in the City of Boston. She described two pathways to chipping away at income inequality by building wealth in communities: home ownership and entrepreneurship. As Boston’s housing crisis means that residents are struggling to afford homes, small businesses are also suffering from quickly increasing rents. Small businesses are critical to the economy, culture, and vibrancy of neighborhoods within the City of Boston. There are 40,000 small businesses in the city, which generate about $15 billion in revenue and create 170,000 jobs. She also noted that people of color make up 53% of the city’s population, yet only 32% of businesses are owned by people of color. These businesses often lack access to capital and face significant barriers to obtain funding. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Small Business and Consumer Affairs.

Flooding: I filed a hearing order to discuss flooding in Boston, and the legislative, funding, and governance structures needed for the city and residents to adapt. Boston is extremely vulnerable to flooding, from sea level rise, from our rivers and brooks swelling in storms, and from increased stormwater runoff overwhelming our drainage system. On January 5, 2018, we experienced a record-breaking flood as the high tide reached its highest level since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1921, causing damage to roads, public transportation, and many buildings. The City’s Climate Ready Boston initiative estimates that sea levels could rise 10 feet by the end of the century and 37 feet by 2200. But the impact is not limited to neighborhoods and homes on the waterfront; flooding also exacerbates unhealthy living conditions in older housing stock and homes where residents can’t afford to renovate. We will need to fund many infrastructure projects to adapt to climate change and flooding, including the potential for a major seawall in Boston Harbor, reconstruction of roadways, and renovation of many homes where residents can’t afford the entire cost of adaptation. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing.

Resiliency Standards for City-owned property: Councilor O’Malley and I filed a hearing order to discuss standards for energy efficiency and resiliency for development or redevelopment of City-owned buildings or structures on City-owned land. The City Council is currently exploring ways to incentivcize net zero carbon standards for new development across the city through discussions about revising state building codes. However, the City could set higher standards for energy efficiency, resiliency, and transportation access for publicly-funded projects and for development or redevelopment of City-owned property without waiting for state or federal standards to change. Last week’s announcement that the Administration released an RFI listing 83 municipal parcels as potential sites for redevelopment to add housing units is an opportunity to build affordable housing to the highest standards of resiliency and efficiency--residents of affordable housing should be in homes that are as resilient, healthy, and efficient as any. Passive house standards would also mean that residents would need to pay little or no costs for electricity and heating, helping with household budgets as well. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing.

MBTA Local Assessment: I called for a hearing on the City of Boston’s annual assessment to the MBTA, which will be $85.8M in Fiscal Year 2018. The revenue from local assessments levied on the 175 cities and towns in the MBTA’s service area make up the third-largest source of revenue for the agency, after state sales tax and fares paid by MBTA riders. Boston’s contribution makes up over half of the local assessment revenue, and it comprises 4% of the MBTA’s total operating budget. This $85.8M represents taxpayer dollars from all of Boston, and yet the MBTA’s fare pricing structure does not treat all Boston residents equitably. Hyde Park, West Roxbury, and Roslindale residents do not have access to subway service, and are categorized in commuter rail fare zones where it is more than twice as expensive to travel within the city. On Friday, several Councilors and BTD representatives met with a group of about 40 residents to begin mobilizing for commuter rail fare equity. Allowing all Boston residents to pay the Zone 1A fares would not only reduce the financial barrier for certain residents to access public transportation, but it would relieve congestion on the Orange Line and in traffic. Yesterday, the MBTA announced it was considering fare hikes for next fiscal year. This hearing order is meant to discuss any opportunities to leverage Boston’s investment in the MBTA to create more equitable access for our residents. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing. If you are interested in commuter rail fare equity, please fill out and share this brief survey: .

Upcoming Hearings/Working Sessions (livestream)
  • Tuesday, Feb. 20th at 1:30PM: Tentative Working Session on Community Choice Energy Implementation (Environment, Sustainability & Parks)
  • Thursday, Feb. 22nd at 12:30PM: Hearing on a Proposed Medical Marijuana Dispensary at 1524 VFW Parkway, West Roxbury (Planning, Development & Transportation)
  • Thursday, Feb. 22nd at 2PM: Working Session on Plastic Bags Reduction Ordinance Implementation (Environment, Sustainability & Parks)
  • Tuesday, Feb. 27th at 1PM: Hearing on BPS Transportation Budget (Education)
For complete notes on Boston City Council meetings, visit or sign up to receive these notes automatically each week by email. 

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