Zoning and Planning Committee clears up short-term rentals ordinance

As Newton officials try to get a handle on Newton’s short-term rental market, the Planning and Zoning Committee met on Monday with representatives from the city’s Law Department to figure out how to help with that effort.

The city has received more than a dozen complaints related to short-term rentals in the past couple of years, according to Anthony Ciccariello, commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department. Five of those complaints are still under investigation, one of which has been referred to the city’s Law Department for prosecution.

The state has a list of short-term rentals in Massachusetts, and more than 200 properties in Newton are on that list. But the list is compiled using state tax data, and the real number could be higher.

So the Law Department has suggested amending the ordinance to make some important parts clearer and help the city sort out the mess of the short-term rental market.

Who’s home is this?

A big part of the problem is with people listing properties as short-term rentals that they don’t live in and renters listing short-term rentals for units they don’t own.

“We have tenants that listed on Airbnb—34 listings from one, 32 listings for another, 42 listings for another,” Deputy Inspection Services Director Andy Mavrelis said. “So what’s going on here?”

The city implemented an ordinance a few years ago relating to short-term rentals, as websites and apps like Airbnb and Vrbo have gained popularity as alternatives to hotels.

The city requires that the owner of a short-term rental live in the home for at least nine months out of each year and list it as their primary residence. This is meant to prevent someone from buying a dozen homes and turning them into vacation rentals.

That has the potential to create a legal mess, according to attorney Kristen Annunziatio of the city’s Law Department.

“Allowing someone who is a tenant or a lessee of a home or a unit, to operate a short-term rental has led to a situation where a single person or entity owns several properties that they can use for short-term rental purposes because they are purportedly occupied and listed as the primary residence of the lessee, which is a circumvention of the owner-occupied requirement for short-term rentals as it currently stands,” Annunziato explained.

Ciccariello mentioned an example—without giving names—of a two-family home with the owner leasing one part to their adult son and renting the other (supposedly owner-occupied) unit out as a short-term rental instead of the owner living in it themselves.

The city allows a short-term rental to house up to nine people at a time, so a two-family home with both units rented out could see 18 people staying in it at any given time.

And how does the city enforce a market that’s always changing by nature?

“Once the property is identified—by neighbor complaints, by online listing of the property—it has also been difficult for ISD [Inspectional Services Department] to figure out which party is the appropriate party to issue the notice of violation to, since there is this instance of discrepancy where a lessee can be leasing a unit they do not own, etc.,” Annunziato said.

Mitigating the mess

The first change proposed at the Zoning and Planning Committee is enforcing the requirement for every short-term rental listing and advertisement to include the property registration number.

“It will help with investigation and writing up violations for that property,” Ciccariello said.

Cambridge and Somerville both have the registration number requirement. And so does Newton, but it was lost in the original ordinance and hasn’t been enforced, attorney Andrew Lee of the Newton Law Department said.

Another requirement that’s being fine-tuned and clarified relates to properties owned by a corporation or a trust and used as short-term rentals, because those properties are difficult to figure out when it comes to who is designated as the beneficiary or the controlling shareholder.

“The proof-of-residency requirement will now clearly lay out who is the one living there,” Lee said. “And in order for them to do that, they need to provide two pieces of evidence, two documents showing that they live there—voter registration, vehicle registration, ID, etc.—and it has to be that name. It has to be the person who is reportedly the majority shareholder of the corporation, for example.”

The Zoning and Planning Committee unanimously passed the amendments clarifying the city’s short-term rental ordinance. The amendments will now head to the full City Council for a vote.

The changes don’t add any new zoning rules and simply clarify what the existing rules mean and what property owners must do to meet the existing requirements.

“These changes are really intended to shore up questions we’ve been asked, or that we anticipate being asked, when we go into court on these things, as well as making it easier for ISD to carry out their own tasks and fulfill the intention of the ordinances,” Annunziatio said.