Appleton Street fire prompts scrutiny of AirBnb

On March 1, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

The fire that struck an Appleton St. home said to be listed as an AirBnb offering has raised questions about the safety and propriety of certain buildings being used in such a capacity. — Photo by Bobbie Toner

By Joe Ruvido

A fire ripped through a 3-family house on Appleton St. in late January, prompting people to jump from 2nd floor windows to safety. The fire department has kept a detail at the house around the clock since then.

The façade is now burnt to a charred crisp. The cause of the fire was most likely the “inappropriate disposal of smoking materials” according to Somerville’s fire examiner.

According to documents released by AirBnb, Somerville has 813 active listings as of January. The majority of these (62%) are private rooms in houses or apartments where a host may or may not be present along with a renter. Most of the remaining 38% are rentals of entire homes.

That renters are less accountable than owners for property upkeep is one basis for the added scrutiny. AirBnb says their business model counters this logic. After a stay, a renter rates both the house and the host, and the host rates the renter in terms of cleanliness and respect of house rules. Renters are keen to keep a good rating to book future homes and lofts while homeowners look to keep up high ratings to get future business.

City and state officials are taking a serious look at the impact of AirBnb type rentals on the economy as well as safety issues that have been raised.

“It’s part of the sharing economy, it’s cheaper, and it’s more authentic than staying in a hotel,” said Tom Goldstone, 32, of Somerville. Goldstone says that incidents like the fire are anecdotal and won’t deter him from using the service in the future.

Yet fires set in cities as densely populated as Somerville have Somerville aldermen taking a more cautious approach. “It appears that smoke detectors did go off so that residents could get out quickly. Fortunately there were no serious injuries,” remarked Alderman At-Large Jack Connolly, who noted that Somerville and the State of Massachusetts are both looking into possible regulations of the service. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren joined Senators last summer in calling for added scrutiny of the service. Policy tools that Somerville could impose include permit and licensing restrictions for hosts as well as occupancy taxes and fees.

Others are concerned about AirBnB’s role in Somerville’s rapidly appreciating housing and rental markets. “I am concerned Airbnb could negatively affect available housing for families and artificially increase the cost of real estate,” said Alderman At-Large Dennis Sullivan. To that end, there is evidence that AirBnb has affected the vacancy rate in already densely populated New York City, driving up rents. Also, the ratio of AirBnb rental units to owners is increasing, evidence that the rental service is becoming increasingly commercialized.

At the same time, Sullivan says that some residents are serving as AirBnb hosts to make ends meet. AirBnb sent a letter to the mayor and the Board earlier this month defending the role of home sharing in the community and expressing the company’s willingness to work with the city regarding policy. “Smart policymaking will allow home sharing to achieve its potential as an economic, social and environmental solution, not just for the everyday people who take part in it, but for the cities and other local governments that stand to benefit from it,” says the letter. The Board of Aldermen referred the letter and considerations on AirBnb taxes to committee.


3 Responses to “Appleton Street fire prompts scrutiny of AirBnb”

  1. steve says:

    watching the house? is it a crime to rent a room or part of an apartment

    on airbnb? id be tempted to do it myself! but its not allowed on my

    lease id be kicked out on my azz! they never stated the cause of the fire…

    electrical.. careless smoking.. what? its still sitting there all burned up?

    the owner or tenants could have airbnbd it to help with rent costs or

    to make quick extra cash! an airbnb guest could have started the

    fire! we need names/dates of who and when they stayed there to

    bring criminal charges if need be…

  2. Jim says:

    If an entire house is rented as an AirBnB, it is a hotel and should be regulated and taxed as such. I totally support AirBnB for spare bedrooms or short term rentals (e.g., you AirBnB your apt while you are away), but when an entire house becomes a full time AirBnB, it is a hotel.

    The trend of whole house AirBnB’s is just another force making renter families an endangered species in Somerville. The BOA have to put a stop to this

  3. Ron says:

    I run a couple of licensed B&Bs in Somerville. There are very specific rules under which I operate. I or a suitable host has to live in the building. Guests can’t cook. I need to have a certain number of parking spaces. I am required to have a fire sprinkler system and a fire alarm system (with automatic notification). I charge room tax (11.7%) and I pay commercial property tax rates. I had to have historic designation in order to rent more than three rooms in my zoning classification.

    My question is this. Have all these rules that I have so carefully followed been suddenly thrown away because someone in Seattle wrote an app? If not, then why aren’t they enforced?

    As for needing to rent rooms in order to make ends meet, that argument can be used for anything that violates zoning. I need run a dog kennel in my home to make ends meet, I need to run a nursing facility, I need to make meth, etc. Besides, that is not the model for most airbnb facilities, most seem to be self-service hotels.

    After seeing the fire on Appleton Street I am very happy that my buildings conform to fire safety regulations. I just wish that these regulations would be applied to anyone operating a lodging establishment.

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