LETTER: Council to Consider Allowing Short Term Rentals, Resident Opposes Them

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For three + years residents have been attending City Council meetings and calling City Councilors to address concerns about allowing short-term rentals (STRs) in our city. STRs are rental periods of 31 days or less in various types of properties. We are grateful that the topic is coming up on the agenda finally, but could the timing be any worse?

With the Watertown Square Charrette meetings occurring this next week, the Council meeting is now on Monday, November 27, when typically Council meetings are held on Tuesdays. How many people are going to pay attention to the day change, especially right after a long holiday weekend?

Some people with an interest in this topic may still be out of town. And if you look at the agenda, it’s a full one, with STRs scheduled towards the end of the meeting. Even though all these factors could have the effect of discouraging people from attending and participating, I’m asking you to get involved.

Do we know if the Councilors will be voting that night, or is this just another discussion? That’s not clear. Where do the Councilors stand on this issue? Does the public know?

Even though these types of rental units are tolerated in some cities that are tourist areas like Boston and vacation areas along the coast, here in Watertown the consensus of opinion seems to be that we don’t want them or need them. In fact, some other areas, such as the Cape, are seeing the downsides of these businesses and are talking about amending their zoning to disallow them as they are changing their communities and not for the better.

There has been a lot of talk that we need more affordable housing in Watertown and these hundreds of units are not being rented by people who want to permanently live here and be part of our community. They are currently being used as a business that caters to people who stay for varying short periods of times.

Watertown Zoning Enforcement says that their hands are tied. They rely on complaints from neighbors to make them aware of situations that are not working out. Even then it takes an inordinate amount of time to respond to these complaints, if ever. That situation will not change, even if these units are regulated.

They say they need proof of what is happening in a house to investigate. How can neighbors constantly monitor the activities? Should they have to bear this responsibility? Should they have to buy and install cameras to see what’s going on day and night, and does that add to a positive neighborhood environment? Should they have to put up with the possible issues regarding parking, trash and noise?

That is truly an unreasonable burden to put on residents. They feel they could be in jeopardy for repercussions for reporting issues. And when problems arise due to the renters or the owners of STRs, police, fire and ambulance personnel are called to resolve the issues. Those are extra expenses that are incurred by the City as a whole and take valuable personnel away from other emergencies. This is an issue that needs to be addressed THIS YEAR. We don’t want or need to keep passing the buck on this problem. These types of units add nothing to Watertown. They just deprive families who’d like to live here of housing, which is what most of us want to have.

Typically these units are either one or multi-family homes that people have bought and turned into a business. Occasionally they’re in apartment buildings. The owners often don’t live there and don’t really know what’s going on, and that is when the neighbors bear the brunt of this lack of supervision. Even if the owner lives there, there can be confrontations or difficulties.

Can the city readily identify these STRs, especially if they have not registered through a state-authorized service? Does the city really need the pitiful amount of income they are getting back from the state on these STRs, (approximately $120,000 in total for all of them in 2022), that Gideon Schreiber stated at the meeting on April 3? How does this cover regulation and enforcement costs?

Even if they are registered, the burden will still fall on the neighbors to see if the owner/occupier is there at all times. If there is a weekend issue, especially with parking or noise issues, are the police going to have to be the enforcers as City Hall is closed down?

What are the fines going to be for the owners who don’t follow the rules? Will the fines be implemented on the first offense to discourage others from violating the rules and to show we are serious? To date no fines for offenders have been issued per Mr. Schreider. What are the fees for applying to have STRs? How often will they be inspected? How long is the permit allowed before needing renewal?

I responded to an article in Watertown News on November 15 on Affordable Housing, https://www.watertownmanews.com/2023/11/15/letter-watertown-affordable-housing-an-inside-story-part-two/# relating to my neighborhood’s experience:

A single-family house that was bought and secretly turned into a STR caused a lot of problems. The owners then secretly turned it into an unregulated two-apartment rental by blocking off access to some rooms. The mayhem that ensued … numerous visits by the police, resulting in a person being taken to the police station, did nothing to add to a positive, peaceful environment on a small street.

The city can’t possibly keep track of these types of transactions, and it’s not fair for neighbors to have to put up with strangers coming in and out of our neighborhoods over different lengths of time. This destabilizes a neighborhood.

Many parents are concerned about their children’s safety and many neighbors just don’t feel comfortable either with this uncertainty. How you can get involved in resolving this issue for your neighborhood and the rest of the city? Please attend this Council meeting on Monday, November 27, at 7 p.m. either in person or on Zoom and speak up.

This meeting will be held on November 27, 2023 at 7:00 P.M. Location: Richard E.
Mastrangelo Council Chamber

B. The meeting will be televised through WCATV (Watertown Cable Access Television):

C. The Public may join the virtual meeting online: https://watertown-ma.zoom.us/j/92991331344

D. Public may join the virtual meeting audio only by phone: (877) 853-5257 or (888)
475-4499 (Toll Free) and enter Webinar ID: 929 9133 1344

E. Public may comment through email: vpiccirilli@watertown-ma.gov

If you can’t attend, please send your comments to Councilor Vincent Piccirilli by email to: vpiccirilli@watertown-ma.gov, and ask that your comments be read at this meeting. (Otherwise, they may end up in a file tucked away in the archives and no one knows what you said.)

You can also send emails to all of our City Councilors at the same time: citycouncilors@watertown-ma.gov, but actually attending is more effective. We need to encourage our Councilors to just VOTE NO on having STRs in Watertown and then make sure they shut down the unregulated units operating here now.

Free up these apartments for families to rent and help maintain a good quality of life in our community. Is that too much to ask? Shouldn’t we put the needs and] wants of our residents first? Many of us think so.

Joan Gumbleton
Watertown Resident

13 thoughts on “LETTER: Council to Consider Allowing Short Term Rentals, Resident Opposes Them

  1. I had no idea that there were STRs in Watertown! Everything you said makes sense to me as reasons we should not have them here! I’m surprised they are allowed here. I can’t go to that meeting but I hope to watch it on cable or attend on Zoom.

    • Marian,
      I hope you and others will write to the councilors (see e-mail address above) and ask them to Vote No on having short-term rentals in Watertown. I have been attending meetings on this issue since the pre-Covid days. That the city has allowed this unregulated activity to drag on for years to the detriment of our neighborhoods is unconscionable – yet the city has collected fees as mentioned.

      That it has taken 7-10 months to post these four meeting minutes, just before the holiday weekend for a Council meeting on Monday, 11/27 – not the routinely scheduled Tuesday – is unacceptable. According to MA Open Meeting Law (OML), page 19:
      “Open Session Meeting Records
      The Open Meeting Law requires public bodies to create and approve minutes in a timely manner. A “timely manner” is considered to be within the next three public body meetings or 30 days from the date of the meeting, whichever is later, unless the public body can show good cause for further delay. The Attorney General encourages minutes to be approved at a public body’s next meeting whenever possible. The law requires that existing minutes be made available to the public within ten days of a request, whether they have been approved or remain in draft form. Materials or other exhibits used by the public body in an open meeting must also be made available to the public within ten days of a request.”

      Also, according to the Rules for the City Council, page 9,
      “8.8 Each committee shall provide a report to the City Council on any meetings it held within 30 days. The report will subsequently be included on the next regularly-scheduled City Council meeting agenda in compliance with all applicable city rules.”

      In this case, it’s the “Rules and Ordinances Committee” that has not followed the city council rules nor the MA OML. And the minutes that were published are missing key comments and contain errors.

      I want to give a shout-out to WCA-TV, our cable station. Without their meeting recordings, we would often not have an accurate accounting of what takes place.

  2. This writer suggests that neighbors should “police” neighbors. I utterly reject that concept. You have no right to know what is going on inside anyone’s property, unless there is illegal activity inside or disruptive behavior which emerges into public view.

    This writer also implies that people who stay in short-term rentals are something to be feared. Do you fear hotel guests at the Residence Inn or Hampton Inn?

    I certainly agree that anyone who disturbs the peace or creates a public nuisance should face painful consequences, whether they are Watertown locals or their guests (equally likely, in my opinion). So to prevent unwanted disturbances, I suggest proper regulation instead of an outright ban.

    We need to get to a place in this country where we can LIVE AND LET LIVE.

    • There is a big difference between a hotel and a rental unit that is constantly changing occupancy. The hotel, or even a B & B, is constantly being supervised by staff or owners.

      I think that the writer believes (with reason) that the oversight of STRs would only occur when neighbors make complaints about a property. This is what she means about citizens becoming police and she appears to find it less than desirable.

      We seem to have enough trouble enforcing codes that already exist, so it is not reasonable to expect much oversight of STRs.

    • Not all illegal or disruptive behavior emerges into public view; I live in a residential neighborhood and intend to keep it that way. If someone wants short term living experience(s) check into a motel or local hotel.

  3. Joan,

    Thank you for this excellent analysis of the Short Term Rental (STR) business and what effects it has and will potentially have as this business grows in our Watertown neighborhoods. As with most things in life, it’s much easier to just say “no” in the beginning than to say “yes” and have to rethink that decision.

    Many communities that jumped with both feet into this aspect of the “sharing economy” have found that they were too quick with that decision, and that the consequences…crime, destabilization of neighborhoods, etc. were just not worth it.

    Sharing Economy. That’s a funny phrase. Who is “sharing” in this economy? Certainly not the neighbors that will have to lose scarce parking spots or pick up garbage left behind or have to have a “talk” with a neighbor whose “guests” have been disruptive in some way. And having to call the police for late night raucous parties, etc. is never a position that a neighbor wants to be in.

    No, the only upside comes to the folks participating in this activity who will enhance their bottom line while “sharing” the consequences of their business with their neighbors.

    By the way, some councilors use the reasoning that it’s happening already, so why not “regulate” this so that we can find out where they are. There’s a whole industry out there of companies that for a fee will locate these activities all over the city, and not just the ones that choose to go by the regulations. This is an important resource, because, as we know, there are people and companies buying up properties just for this purpose (STR’s), making those properties unavailable for rental to people who want to actually live in a community.

    Thank you again, Joan. You made the case. Now, let’s all just say “No”.

  4. The people who have actually experienced the negative effects of having these STRs in their neighborhoods would say that they do have to police their areas. If they don’t report the problems, the city has no way of knowing what is going on there. Neighbors don’t want to be put in the position that they need to bear this burden.

    Hotels are a totally different story. They have their own sets of problems, but they have security on site to handle issues. In Watertown we recently had a problem on Arsenal St. where high-end prostitutes and clients were using an expensive apartment for illicit activities and it took a while for this to be discovered.

    We don’t have the personnel to monitor and enforce STRs. If we have to add more people to staff, that only adds to the costs to enforce and investigate reported problems. Our first responders don’t need more tasks being added to their duties either.

  5. I agree that Short Term Rentals need to be thoroughly researched before allowing them in Watertown. Regulation is not going to limit the transient nature of a number of apartments, houses, and condos once allowed. We should do everything in our power to encourage people to live here full time and participate in our city. We should do much to discourage hedge-funds and investors making headway here.
    Transience is a real issue, on a street, in a building—a gap in the human connection that makes neighborhoods and community. Even if the residences don’t become affordable, having someone permanently living there gives them a stake in Watertown. Having empty apartments part of the week/month/year is a real negative for us.
    Let’s Vote NO until we have a lot more positive information that makes voting yes an option everyone can value. I’m not sure we’ll find it, but think it’s worth trying to find before Watertown commits.

  6. Mark Sideris withdrew the STR discussion from the Council Agenda for last night’s meeting on November 27. The meeting minutes will be re-written in a better format and a public meeting will be scheduled, perhaps in January, to allow people to make comments.

    If you are talking to your Councilors, it is important to keep this issue out in front and let them know where you stand on it. Some Councilors are in favor of having STRs to accommodate certain groups of people. I still think we should put residents’ needs first. Don’t allow the abbreviated word, ‘STR’, to stand for ‘Stiff The Residents’ who have or will have these STRs in their neighborhood.

  7. What a lot of fear mongering over something you all know nothing about.
    I have great respect for all the commenters on this post but it’s way over blown.
    I bet the negative occurrences are very few but they get elevated for emotional satisfaction.
    “Free up these apartments for families to rent and help maintain a good quality of life in our community” well what if one of these families could use a short term help to pay the rent?
    What if an elderly person has an extra room and could use the extra income?
    Please stop with the fear mongering. I don’t have a persona; need for this option for short term rentals but see no harm if others fine it helpful.
    I can guarantee that no one wants to rent to people who will cause trouble for the neighbors.
    If you experience a problem try talking with your neighbor. It’s not so hard.

  8. Hi David,

    I could see how you could get that impression, especially if you haven’t had any experience with STRs in your neighborhood.

    I believe the author of the article and her neighbors have been negatively impacted by a short term rental on her street, which required numerous visits by the police…a real day to day connection with the problem.

    First, nobody is depriving a property owner from renting their property to make extra money. They can rent it full-time to a person or family that wants to live in Watertown as their primary residence. I don’t know about you, but most people I know have more concern for a place that they call home than some place that they’re just traveling through. Also, rentals over 30 days are not considered short term. Instead, other laws and regulations treat them as any other lease.

    In short term rentals, you are dealing with renters who are, for lack of a better term, fly by night “pseudo residents.” Short term rentals turn your neighborhood into a de facto hotel zone.

    As far as depriving people of homes, that’s exactly what these STRs do. They also raise the rental rates, since there are fewer apartments for rent full-time, and the rent for a temporary stay (a weekend, for instance) is per diem more than for a full-time stay, changing the demographics of an area (in our case making us more exclusive than inclusive).

    This deprives people who would like to live and work in Watertown, using less gas and perhaps requiring one car rather than two, from growing their roots here. This deprives our community of a workforce that makes a city run well.

    This complaint is voiced very often from City Hall as they not only strive to fill new positions but to fill old ones. In the Human Services Committee meeting this week, the interim Health Department Director spoke of the relief of being almost fully staffed, so that their jobs can go from reactive to proactive when it comes to our rat problem.

    No, nobody is asking homeowners in Watertown to forgo making money, just make it in a way that doesn’t hurt their community.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply Linda. I still see short term rentals as probably a rare problem. Probably linked to absentee ownership. If restrictions are confined to absentee owners but not local homeowners then that will probably be fair for all. There are many good people who are seeking a short visit, maybe to see family and friends, to check out a job or a school and should not be unfairly labeled ‘fly by night’ because of a bad experience by others.
      I’m sorry if the writer of this article had a bad experience but 1 case is not a whole picture.

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