Boston's Airbnb laws hit a roadblock with judge

Last year, we learned that Boston had passed a new set of laws specifically designed to essentially run Airbnb (along with their competitors in the home-sharing, gig economy market) out of business. Not only did they want to levy new taxes on hosts, but force the company to turn over virtually all of their internal records and develop registries to track hosts. The state of Massachusetts quickly followed suit with similar laws.

Airbnb challenged them in court and the process has been tied up since then. But this week, a judge ruled that two of the three provisions in the laws being challenged by the company were unconstitutional. It’s not a complete victory, but it has at least slowed Boston down a bit. (Boston Globe)

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the City of Boston from enacting two provisions of a short-term rental ordinance passed last summer but is allowing officials to proceed with a third element of the act regulating the growing online market for lodgings in private homes.

US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin, ruling Friday on a motion in a lawsuit filed by San Francisco-based Airbnb last November, declared that Boston can’t eject a short-term rental service from the city as punishment for posting and failing to remove listings that violate the ordinance.

Sorokin, who heard arguments April 8 on the motion, also ruled that Boston can’t require short-term rental services to report to the city how many days each month a rental is occupied. He wrote that “Airbnb would be irreparably harmed by having to comply with an unconstitutional requirement that it disclose private business information.”

The judge found it to be within the city’s power to charge a fine of $300 per day whenever it was determined that people were leasing out “illicit rentals.” How the city gets to determine which bits of private property are unqualifed for overnight rentals has yet to be addressed. But at least for now, Boston won’t be able to force Airbnb out of the city entirely for any violation of these laws, nor will they be able to force them to turn over records of how many days per month a unit is rented out.

That second part will make it particularly hard to enforce the ridiculous limits that both the city and state want to put in place on host traffic. One rule only allows exemptions from the ruinous regulations if you don’t rent out your room for more than fourteen days per year. (And if that’s all the use you are allowed to make of it there’s little point in signing up for the service in the first place.)

Still, some of the basic portions of the new regulations will remain in place and the city is praising this great “victory” that supposedly is making people safer. The reality, of course, is something else entirely. These regulatory efforts are a bone being thrown to the powerful hotel industry and their lobbyists like the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA). The New York Times revealed in 2017 that the AHLA was working on “a multipronged, national campaign approach at the local, state and federal level.”

That campaign included specific methods and targets designed to choke the life out of Airbnb and protect their industry’s profits. They cited specific cities with Democratic leadership to target because they would be the ones most open to the message, including Boston.The industry gives a lot of money to politicians, so they were obviously going to listen. And in Boston, along with San Francisco and other urban centers, the message was received loud and clear. Now the gig industry is fighting for its life in court and the future still isn’t looking very bright.