ZBA Grounds Airbnb, Punts Internet Lodging to Planning Board

Photo: The room that Joanne Sintiris rents for $85 a night as an Airbnb host.

Joanne Sintiris found herself uncomfortably close to the edge of a financial cliff. 

A divorce left the Betts Road resident wrestling to make ends meet and seeking some way to make a little extra money. 

“I needed some way to supplement my income. It was hard to see how I was going to do that,” she said.

Then Sintiris discovered the wildly popular online service Airbnb where homeowners can rent out one or more rooms in their house, condo or apartment for a nightly, weekly or monthly fee.

“It turned out to be a real savoir,” said Sintiris, who rents a spare room out for $85 a night, below the $135 average for the Boston area.

The “room” includes a private entrance, one bedroom, living room, private bathroom, use of a washer/dryer, a shared garden and patio with a grill.

“It was crazy. I was turning people away, many people who I didn’t want,” said the Cambridge native. 

And her guests raved about the experience.

“Joanne was a wonderful host, she was easy to communicate with, friendly, and we felt very welcome in the apartment. The location was quiet, relaxing, yet still easy to get to the best parts of Boston,” wrote a lodger who stayed in October.

Sintiris will now see her windfall slashed dramatically after the Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals Monday night, Dec. 7, rejected her request by a single vote for a special permit to would allow her to continue renting the room for less than seven days.

In a debate that once veered off to include the threat of sex offenders and all guests requiring CORI background checks, the board Monday essentially punted the issue off to the Planning Board, which will be asked to create, or at least, modernize the town’s antiquated lodging and boarder bylaws for the 250 residents who host Airbnb visitors in Belmont.

“If it is correct that there will be 250 people with rooms to rent, then in that case it must be thought out in a comprehensive way which is the role of the Planning Board,” said ZBA Chairman Eric Smith. 

Sintiris’ case is the first of what could be several hundred the Office of Community Development anticipates to bring before the ZBA. The town contends that under existing town bylaws, anyone renting for less than seven days must obtain a special permit under the town’s bylaws. Sintiris just happened to be the first Airbnb provider plucked from the website to be required to rent the room for seven plus days. 

Since a majority of lodgers stay less than four days, Sintiris sought the special permit since those potential customers are decamping across the town line in Cambridge (with a 1,000 Airbnb listings), Boston (2,000), and other neighboring communities that have no or very limited restrictions.

“I need to have the flexibility to provide a room for a weekend or a week,” she said.

Airbnb is now one of the biggest success stories coming from the new internet service industry, reporting Monday a net worth exceeding $25 billion.

While there is the occasional sensational negative event, Airbnb have become the “go to” lodging experience for a rapidly growing number of travels around the world. In the seven years since Airbnb was founded, more than 60 million people have used the service, listing almost two million homes in 34,000 cities (Paris alone has 60,000 hosts) in approximately 190 countries worldwide.

Municipalities have scratched the surface of regulating these new fangled rentals; Somerville proposed a six percent tax (but had no way of implementing it) and Boston is pondering restrictions.

For the handful of residents who opposed the special permit, the issues created by this “disrubting ” range from noise to fear of those coming into the community. 

Opponents such as Patrice Shea of Talyor Street, who lives close by another Airbnb location, said her street has vehicles coming in “from all over the country” in addition to “Uber cars” – the online, on-demand car service – as people arriving at “very unusual hours,” while many strangers are seen walking with suitcases on the sidewalk. She also wondered if the town wasn’t loss of town revenued in taxes and fees.

“It’s just plain creepy,” Shea said after her testimony. 

“I get the fiscal benefit to the host … and the renter, they pay less money. [But] what does it do to me?” said JP Looney who lives eight houses up Betts from Sintiris, wondering if “a boarding house” in the vacinity will likely reduce his property values.

Looney also pondered safety issues with unfamiliar people coming into the area.

“Is Airbnb doing a criminal background check? That’s not what I understand from the website,” Looney ask. “We are opening up a can of worms by allowing this.”

Picking up on the critic’s line of questioning, board member Nicholas Iannuzzi said without CORI and sexual offendors background checks, “you should in fear of our own safety with anyone in your house for $85 a night.” 

Sintiris countered that she has had a “great experience with everyone,” including university educators and professionals who are coming to town for work or to visit children at school.  

In the end, the board voted 3-2 (Iannuzzi and Jim Zarkadas voting no) in favor of Sintiris’ special permit; while a purality, it was one vote shy of the necessary threshold for the issuance of the license. 

While Iannuzzi’s negative response was towards the distrubtor aspect of the technology, Zarkadas’ ran towards finding a more precise definition of the town’s lodging bylaws.

“It really is up to the Planning Board to make updated laws because there has been a lot of changes and I’m pretty sure they were written back in … the 1800s. While I’m open to business, but when it starts to cross the line of running and operating a business in a neighborhood, there is a lot of unknowns that need to answered,” he said.

Sami Baghdady, the current chair of the Board of Selectmen and former chair of the Planning Board, said it is incumbent for the bylaw writing entity to fill in the gaps in taxes, zoning and licenses that new technology brings to the town.

“The Planning Board needs to address this quite quickly, just because there is more than 200 units now doing business,” he said.

For Sintiris, the change to seven days minimum stay that began this fall “has already hurt me,” saying the current regulations has cut her income by $1,000 a month. 

“I’m not asking for much. Just enough,” she said.

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  1. Dave says

    This should be approved and quickly. Private residents should have a right to use their property in the manner they wish to like this. Get used to uber and airbnb and similar services they are here to stay. BTW uber is a thousand times better than any taxi service hand down.

  2. Stephen Pinkerton says

    What’s next? Do we need to mandate CORI background checks on landscape contractors? Painters? Overnight guests? Who knows what sinister fiends may be lurking just around the corner?

    The level of paranoia on this issue is way more frightening to me than the imagined threat.

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