What Happened When Our City Attempted to Regulate Short-Term Rentals

I wanted to share what happened in our city, as you may find it helpful if your town attempts to regulate STRs. We live in Newton, Massachusetts, in the U.S., which is a city of 80,000 immediately adjacent to Boston. It is a wealthy, largely residential city, although it has many village centers and all forms of public transportation.

Two things prompted the regulation:

  1. Massachusetts enacted a state-wide tax on STRs, requiring each host to register, and each city to also add a local tax
  2. Four properties in our city were purchased and used exclusively for short-term rentals. These were not owner-occupied and were major nuisances to the neighborhood, often being used for parties and commercial events (even an opera!)

The Zoning and Planning committee (ZAP) asked the planning department to draft local ordinances, with the problematic properties being the main focus. The initial draft proposed many limitations, including limiting total nights you could rent to 21 per year. Their thinking was that people only did STRs as investment properties and “regular people” only did it occasionally, like renting out your house for the Boston Marathon (which runs through our city) or something like that.

Someone from the planning department contacted Airbnb, who then contacted some local hosts to let them know this was happening and to encourage us to come to the public comment hearing and share our perspective. This was CRUCIAL to turning the tide. Most city councilors had no idea that “regular” folks were using STRs to help pay their mortgage, their taxes, etc., so they can stay in their homes. We shared many of these stories and no one commented that they were against STRs in general, just these “party houses.”

It soon became clear that there was a big distinction between “owner-occupied” and “absentee owners” and the regulations evolved to only allow owner-occupied STRs. This would ban the problematic properties and show this was meant as supplementary income and not an investment vehicle.

The political process was lengthened extensively by one ZAP committee member who used every procedural trick in the book to try and limit things. He missed the ZAP meeting where the updated ordinances were approved and then forced it back to committee before the council could vote on it in full. He then lobbied in vain for a number of limiting amendments at the next ZAP meeting and at the full city council meeting. Ultimately he was unable to gain enough support and all of his amendments failed. When the council finally voted, it was unanimously in favor of the ordinances.

Hosts didn’t get everything they might have wanted, however. The new regulations limit things to a maximum of three bedrooms and nine guests, we must inform neighbors that we’re hosts and there’s a complaint-driven system where you could lose your registration for a year. You also cannot rent out anything that would be considered housing stock - including accessory apartments. If it has a separate entrance and a full kitchen, it’s completely ineligible to be a STR.

Other than emailing us about a couple of the meetings, Airbnb did nothing to support these efforts. You might have thought they would lobby pretty hard given that many Boston suburbs have made STRs illegal and Boston itself has very strict regulations, but they didn’t send a representative or give us talking points or anything.

So, the moral of the story is: If your city hasn’t regulated yet, pay attention. If they are in the process, be part of the process - write emails, offer public comment, attend the hearings, read the minutes, etc. Our local community of hosts are responsible for saving STRs in our city, no one else was going to fight our battle for us.


So basically, what you’re saying is all that work and time effectively just regulated the 4 “party houses”? Seems like a win for shared-home hosts, but a loss for STR. Out of a city of 80,000 people, there is no doubt in my mind that residents having parties and other events are more of a nuisance to other residents than the 4 STRs. The right thing to do is to crack down on parties and increase the penalties for noise, parking violations, disturbing the peace, whatever. Any guesses as to why they don’t do that? Could it be that residents occasionally want to do the same thing in their own houses and then those same penalties would also apply to themselves, not just STR renters/owners?

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They’re in active litigation with some of the party houses regarding code violations, etc., but apparently their lawyers are making it quite a battle. The other point is that technically ALL STRs are currently illegal, since there’s nothing on the books allowing them. We’ve been operating under the assumption it was OK because there was nothing prohibiting this usage, but technically every host in the city is breaking the law at the moment.

Additionally, there is a housing crisis in the area, so the city wants any property that could be considered housing to be used as housing, not as a STR. I don’t really have a problem with that. While people come to the Boston area for vacation, this isn’t an ocean-side community or ski resort town where people are used to being able to rent entire houses for a week on a regular basis.

I know everyone thinks they have really deep pockets and tons of money but there are hundreds of cities/govt jurisdictions with over 80,000 people.

That’s true of everything, Airbnb isn’t going to be an exception.

Wait, that means everything new is illegal until it’s made legal? That’s a first. Seriously, there must be some other law being broken or it wouldn’t be illegal.

Hosts that have extra room(s) to rent are wasting space that could be used for resident housing. The city should force those hosts to rent their rooms only long term and only to city residents or force the hosts to sell and move to an appropriately sized home.

Obviously, I don’t want that, but it’s something people should be worried about when the government starts regulating specific use of private homes.


I used to live in Brookline, MA, which is near Newton. Boston College is rightthere and the Newton T stations go directly to the 100 other colleges and universities. Party houses in a college town or adjacent town can be a big problem. But the college revenue is important to the towns, so it’s easier to crack down on STRs than address Little Richie’s partying and destructive behavior when Daddy works at a white shoe law firm.