Airbnb woes

Airbnb and its cohorts have been a lifesaver for some downtown residents. They say that renting out a room in their home has allowed them to afford Boston’s high rents or helped them pay for the costly mortgages they have to take on if they buy a place.

Travelers like the arrangement because living in a neighborhood rather than a hotel gives them a more authentic experience.

But it’s complicated. Public officials have received many complaints. Neighborhood leaders, through the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations (ADCO), are concerned. State Representative Aaron Michlewitz has filed legislation trying to rein in abuses. Mayor Walsh issued an executive order in early May that instructs city departments to find out what is going on.

Anecdotally, neighbors say that individual apartments, whole rental buildings and entire single-family houses are being rented to strangers, removing from the market scarce housing that could be rented long-term, violating occupancy or zoning regulations, or frightening occupants of multi-family buildings because strangers are always coming and going. Long-time residents are concerned that an influx of short-term occupants, who have no stake in the neighborhood, will further erode conditions that are already challenging when people live densely in small quarters.

“It’s about quality of life,” said Arturo Gossage, a Chinatown resident who participates in ADCO. “Communities are not being preserved because of this practice.”

Is the problem bad? How extensive is it? No one knows. Rumors persist that renters are living elsewhere and renting their apartment to short-term occupants without their landlord’s knowledge. Another rumor is that the new Ink Block in the South End is filled with Airbnb-ers. Chinatown has at least two entire buildings devoted to Airbnb, said Gossage.

“It’s hard to gauge because you don’t really know who’s renting Airbnb,” said Toni Gilardi, a long-time real estate agent in the North End.

The impetus for owners to rent by the night rather than by the year is big bucks. Let’s say a two-bedroom apartment rents for $3,000 a month. If an owner listed it on Airbnb for $200 a night, probably a low figure, he or she could come away with $6,000 in a 30–day month. Expenses are limited. Of course, not every night might be rented. But still.

Tourists may prefer to have a whole apartment to themselves rather than a room in a stranger’s house.

Here’s what we do know. On one day in early May, 211 entire home rentals were listed for two people wanting to stay on Beacon Hill. Four of these were at 112 Myrtle Street.

In Charlestown, 126 entire homes were available. In the North End, 159 homes were listed, but the site showed only 15 rooms in someone’s house or apartment. In the Back Bay a whopping 306 entire homes were available with only 46 listings for a room in someone’s home.

It looks as if there is a trend, and it is what residents have feared. A significant number of whole apartments and single houses are being rented through Airbnb and its copy cat sites, and it is rarely the nice hosts renting out their spare bedroom. It appears as if a whole support industry of management businesses and cleaning services have gotten into the act, although this column doesn’t have room to explore all that.

Some protections in some buildings exist. Condo associations often have clauses in their agreements that prevent owners from renting their entire apartment on a short-term basis. Depending on the size and configuration of the building and how well people know one another, however, a scofflaw can be difficult to find.

Cities all over America are grappling with this matter. As of early May, Airbnb agreed to register its San Francisco hosts, and the city will make it possible to obtain registrations electronically. New York has made it illegal to rent a home for fewer than 30 days, and can issue fines to people who advertise such a listing. Reportedly, an owner in Trump Tower paid a $1,000 fine for doing such a thing.

So in Boston there are data to be gathered, testimony to be heard and ultimately, probably, regulations to be imposed.

The irony, though, say some real estate brokers, is that those proverbial absentee landlords who have kept their rental apartments in bad shape probably won’t do much better with Airbnb than with long-term rentals. On Airbnb the visitors can rate them. Wouldn’t it be nice if long-term renters could do the same?

Competition might improve old rental buildings

Downtown residents are enjoying a certain satisfaction they didn’t expect. Those dreadful absentee landlords who suck all the rent money out of their buildings while keeping them in slum-like condition are now facing competition from such new luxury buildings as the Kensington in the Theatre District, the Avalon near North Station and the Watermark in the Seaport.

Those absentee landlords, who are all over the North End, Beacon Hill and to some extent, the Back Bay, might have to spend real dollars on fixing up their apartments. Poetic justice? You bet.

“Those older units are a dying breed,” observed Toni Gilardi, a long-time real estate broker in the North End. “Having a dishwasher is no longer a luxury. Kids are so spoiled that they walk into these places they can afford, and say, ‘Mommy, I can’t live here.’ ”

Betsey Barrett, a broker with Brewster & Berkowitz on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay and South End, agreed.

“The new high-rise rentals have had a big impact,” she said. “Landlords who used to charge a premium and not update their space are now having to update or take significantly less rent.”

Barrett said she started talking with her landlords a couple of years ago about upgrading. Those that haven’t or are still charging high rents have been stuck with empty apartments.

“There has been a lot of inventory sitting in September, which is atypical for our market,” she said.

Despite the clear trend that landlords have to fix up their units or else, the brokers see smaller trends and more nuanced activity.

The new buildings are pricey – two-bedrooms with about 1,000 square feet in the Watermark are listed for between about $4,500 and $6,600. But you get a lot for the money—a billiard room, views, a sunbathing roof, a dog washing spa and a dog run, fitness center, yoga space, bicycle storage and a charging station for your electric car, among other amenities.

What don’t you get? The charm of the older neighborhoods, and the proximity of the shops and restaurants the city’s older neighborhoods enjoy, although those conveniences will eventually come to the newer buildings.

But compared to a nicely renovated one-bedroom, 331 square foot apartment on Willow Street on Beacon Hill for $3,000, about twice as much per square foot as a luxury building, many young people would probably choose the Watermark and invite a roommate to share the cost.

A subtlety brokers have noticed is that with the sales market so tight, renters who otherwise might have bought a place and moved into it, thus freeing up their unit, are staying put.

As more new units have come on the market, there has been a slight dip in the average rent. That may be due in part to the old buildings’ neglectful landlords having to lower their rent. Gilardi has noticed that some new apartments offer free rent for a month or two to soften the blow of the high cost.

She expects to see a lot of churn because of high rents and possible vacancies in the new buildings. “Renters are going for the deals in high rises,” she explained. “When the rent goes up to what it is supposed to be, they may move back to the older units.”

If the new luxury rental buildings face vacancies, she expects the owners to turn them into condominiums and sell them. That will take rental units off the market.

She also said that with the high sales prices, individual landlords are selling their units as condominiums, also taking them off the rental market.

Another peculiarity she’s noticed—broken leases. “Prices are going up, but there is at the same time a significant number of lease breaks in the middle of the term in January, February and March,” she observed.

She said Boston might be losing talent to warmer climes, or that people have had changes in jobs or marital status, but she has no solid explanation for this trend.

Gilardi is philosophical about the changing rental market. “The market moves constantly,” she said. “If it didn’t, people would have no place to live because the people who are settled would never give up their apartments.”

Better skyscrapers

Consider Los Angeles. It’s enjoying an upgrade. With refurbished hotels, new residential buildings, a spruce-up of its gorgeous library and all the services and restaurants that come with a dense population, LA’s downtown is finally full of vitality.

It also looks good. One reason is the tops of some of its new buildings. In 2014, after much complaint from Angelenos about the city’s boring skyline, LA officials rescinded an ordinance that required its skyscrapers to have flat roofs to accommodate a rooftop helipad.

What’s Boston’s excuse?

Now consider Chicago. As much as Boston boosters brag about the many cranes dotting this city, Chicago is on steroids compared to Boston. Fifty-two high rises, such as the stacked Vista Tower, are under construction, and other gems —River Point and Aqua, for example—have recently opened.

The Second City has a reputation for gun violence. It is second, I’m told, not because New York is first, but because Chicago had to be built a second time after Old Ma Leary’s cow kicked over that lantern and burned the place to the ground.

But guns and its 19th-century rebirth are not its whole story. It’s the many beautiful new buildings, sculptural, reflective, light-filled that spread through the Loop and beyond. One building perches on a thin, horizontal line on the ground, with support beams rising at angle. It looks as if a toddler on a ladder could push it over. Even the Trump building, whose developer is not known for his aesthetic, is beautiful. Not all the buildings have interesting tops, but some do. I don’t know how Chicago seems so light and airy with all those tall buildings, but it does. From afar, part of the reason is its varied tops, some featuring steps, others points, some crowns.

Now consider Boston. Flat tops everywhere. Recently when I quizzed friends about a Boston high rise they liked, they came up with nothing.

We can do little about the buildings already built. But we can insist that buildings now proposed do better at the top.

That’s why I want to bring up Millennium Partner’s Winthrop Square project. The controversy over this building has been all about its shadow. But now that the Boston City Council has sent a home rule petition to the legislature that would exchange this building’s shadow for the shadows in the shadow bank, it is one step closer to being built.

If the legislature changes the shadow law, we’ll have little time to consider what has been ignored so far—the design—a clunky, rectangular box with a flat top scored by vertical protrusions. Surely, there are no helicopters in its future, so why must it have a flat roof?

Millennium uses the same architects, who employ glass and slight angles on the tops, over and over again. Some of the vertical setbacks on the new, dark Millennium Tower are nice touches, but this third tallest building in the city does nothing for the skyline. If Winthrop Square is going to get built, it is time for Millennium to do better.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency is partly to blame for making Boston’s skyline so dreary. It has paid attention to the ground level. But it acts as if tops don’t exist. The BPDA could issue directives to encourage more interesting design at the top. Like New York City did in the 1920s and 1930s, it could require some buildings to taper to reduce the amount of shadow on surrounding buildings.

After all, whenever a skyscraper is deified, extolled, copied and featured in books, lectures or other programs, it’s almost always a building with a great top. The Mies van der Rohe boxes are typically mentioned only as a style of a particular time. But neither Boston’s Pru nor its John Hancock nor the tall, banal boxes lining the Avenue of the Americas get attention.

When New York’s skyline is featured, the focus is still typically on the old, pointy-topped Empire State and the Chrysler building, although One World Trade Center gets some recognition. Other pictures feature the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The flat-topped, bulbous Walkie-Talkie building in London gained notoriety for melting a car with its convex reflecting glass, but in 2015 it was also voted the UK’s worst new building. When London skyline is pictured, the focus is on the Scalpel, the Gherkin and the Shard, all with distinctive tops.

So what makes a successful skyscraper? Chicago’s skyscrapers demonstrate many of the qualities—using excellent materials, taking advantage of perspective, employing colorful glass, reflective glass, good lighting, interesting shapes, good ground level activity, often step-backs, a middle emphasizing verticality and interesting tops. Boston needs to up its game.

Being left out

Are you working hard? Paying attention? Being involved?

Some people apparently believe you aren’t. You are not worthy of their attention. They are leaving you out.

The Boston Water and Sewer Commission is one of the perpetrators. Its recent flyer listed the sites in each neighborhood to which Boston residents could go to meet a BWSC staff member and pay a bill or get answers to questions. The problem? There were no sites listed for the Downtown and Waterfront, Bay Village, Beacon Hill or the Back Bay. Do residents of those neighborhoods have no needs? You could probably traipse over to the North End branch library or Chinatown’s Benevolent Association on Tyler Street to do business with water and sewer, but still.

This brings up a strange way the city has of lumping neighborhoods together. For example, city officials usually speak of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay in one breath. It’s true they lie next to one another and sort of share a demographic. But life in these two neighborhoods is completely different.

With long blocks, large buildings, back alleys and parking spaces in those alleys, Back Bay residents have more in common with the South End than with Beacon Hill. Beacon Hill, with its narrow streets, narrow sidewalks, trash out on those sidewalks twice a week and nowhere but the street for cars to park, is more like the North End than it is like the Back Bay.

And then there’s Bernie. Say it isn’t so, Bernie. You don’t want some of us anymore. When you were in Boston in early April you and Senator Elizabeth Warren had a great rally. Then you dropped the bombshell: you “proposed a restructuring of the Democratic Party, one [that] would be made up of the working class, rather than the ‘liberal elite,’ ” the newspapers reported.

Who do you think was there cheering you on in downtown Boston? A large percentage of the 1,600-plus college-educated crowd were members of that liberal elite.

That reminds me of the years I spent long ago in the National Writers Union. As a member, I was also a non-paying member of the United Auto Workers. (Bernie, would that get me back in your good graces?) I liked the NWU. I participated in workshops and a writers’ group and made many friends who have had success with their writing. One member came up with the title of my first book. I demonstrated with the NWU in front of a Back Bay bookseller when that fearful chain decided not to carry Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses because of threats from the haters. The National Writers Union was a good organization.

But I noticed something: some members seemed more interested in being in a union, especially one in which your job did not require you to shower off the grime at the end of every day, than they were in writing. They were incurable romantics in love with the labor movement, and the only way they could become part of that labor movement was to do it with writers.

But back to Bernie. I wondered. Who is he referring to when he rejects the liberal elite? Is it people who live in Boston who have been to college? Is it National Writers Union members who actually write for a living? Isn’t he one of the members of the liberal elite?

So many questions. So many prejudices. So much name calling. So much partitioning off everyone from everyone else.

There is another insidious way of being left-out. The victims are those who can’t stay up late. How are we early-to-bedders going to enjoy Saturday Night Live and Stephen Colbert, which everyone is talking about? Why can’t these programs be on at 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m.? Record them, you say. Play them at other times. I know. I’m just complaining that they’re leaving lots of people out of that great communal feeling that we’re all laughing at the same time.

Boston’s future mobility

The city published its Go Boston 2030 report in mid-March. It is 223 pages long. I read it so you don’t have to. It’s taken me awhile.

It is available electronically at http://goboston2030.org/en/. Suggestions are accompanied by a note explaining how other cities have fared with such changes, a nice touch.

After I read the report, I checked in with a few people familiar with the project. The complaints were consistent. The solutions are small ideas. Many of them won’t address big problems. And the period of time the report predicts it will take to implement the solutions seems far too long. 2030? We need many of these solutions now.

But there’s much to like in Go Boston 2030. It involved many citizens. One overwhelming theme emerged: Bostonians want fewer cars on the roads and many more options for walking, biking and transit riding. Everyone wanted the ways we get around to be safer, better, faster, more reliable and less congested. “Every home should be within a 10-minute walk of a rail station, a key bus route stop, a Hubway station or a car share,” the report urged.

The principles the city employed were that plans must work for ALL Bostonians, they must foster economic opportunity, and they must respond to climate change by reducing emissions and enabling Bostonians to get around despite severe weather. Aren’t you proud of a city with those principles?

The project illuminated interesting facts: Of the people who both live and work in Boston, 36 percent ride public transit, 27 percent walk to work, and 38 percent drive alone or in a carpool. In the North End, Beacon Hill and downtown more than 40 percent walk to work.

The report’s biggest surprise was about commuting times from homes to jobs. Mattapan residents are screwed big-time. It takes them twice as long to get to work as it does the average of people in every neighborhood. Some other outlying neighborhoods have long travel times too. Downtown neighborhoods fare well in such measures. The report noted that higher housing costs mean lower transportation costs.

Achieving equality is challenging because of past history. Lower income neighborhoods rely more on slow buses while higher income neighborhoods have better access to rapid transit. Is their aversion to helping poor people why Congress finds it so hard to fund public transit? Another reason to be grateful that Boston is beginning to address this inequity.

Some suggested solutions seemed to exacerbate the problems. If you consolidate bus stops so the bus won’t have to stop as much the bus will go faster, but some stops will be farther from many riders’ homes. Running a bus from North Station to the Seaport district won’t sit well with North End and Waterfront residents, who think Atlantic Avenue and the Greenway roads are already impassible.

Many routes labeled “Bus Rapid Transit’ are not rapid since they share lanes with cars. Yet installing such lanes is estimated to take more than five years. Why so long?

“It has to be done the right way,” said Vineet Gupta, director of policy and planning for the Boston Transportation Department. “It requires us to work with the local community.”

When such lanes are created it usually requires the city to eliminate driving and parking lanes, he said.

But this report shows that the Boston residents want such things to occur. Meanwhile I’m feeling pretty bad about our Mattapan neighbors who are sitting in those slow buses.

Some pieces are missing in the report. Wayfinding isn’t mentioned much, especially the problem that newcomers might not know where they are because Boston does not install street signs on such thoroughfares as Commonwealth or Massachusetts Avenue. Several people have pointed out that taxis not mentioned anywhere. Have we decided that taxis play no part in transportation?

The North South Rail Link is not mentioned either, even though estimates predict it would take 55,000 cars off Boston-area roads. That clearly addresses the climate change and emissions goal. The rail link would also enable residents in the north to get to jobs in the south and vice versa, which addresses the economic opportunity piece. I’ve been clear before in this column that I’m an advocate for seriously studying the NSRL to judge if its promise lives up to scrutiny.

The report does mention the South Station expansion, which some predict will be out of date and at capacity as soon as it is completed.

A turf war is going on between those two projects. That is not good for the city. Minds need to open so that both projects get fully and fairly vetted.

One interesting matter regarding Go Boston 2030 is the way things are structured here.

This was the city’s effort to understand what Bostonians want in mobility but, except for streets and sidewalks, the city does not control Boston’s transportation. The MBTA does.

Gupta says his department works closely with the MBTA, and I believe him.

It would have been nice, however, to have some indication of how the city and the MBTA will work together to achieve residents’ goals.

And then there is the money problem. We’re not going to have an excellent transportation system with economic opportunity, equality and reliability without a lot of dollars to make it happen.