Council Votes Down Proposal for Short Term Rentals in Watertown

Print More
Watertown City Hall

A proposal that would have allowed limited forms of short term rentals, such as Airbnb and VRBO, in Watertown was rejected by the City Council in a split vote.

On April 9, the Council heard more than an hour of input from residents, and then discussed it for another hour or so. The proposal only allowed short term rentals in owner-occupied homes, or bedrooms of a home when the owner is home, and the most that a home could be rented as a short term rental was 3 months of a year.

This was the second time that a proposal had come forward, but in 2021 the Planning Board sent it back for reworking. This year, the Planning Board endorsed the proposal, and sent it to the City Council for a final vote.

Most of the people who spoke at the meeting did not want Airbnbs and VRBOs to be allowed in Watertown. They worried about strangers coming into their neighborhoods who would create noise, add cars to the streets, and leave trash in the wrong places. Others brought up concerns about them taking units off the rental market and properties off the sales market, making housing more scarce.

Some spoke in favor of allowing the short term rentals so that people could have a more affordable option than hotels, and property owners could make some money to help pay the mortgage or other bills.

Other concerns included whether the City could enforce the regulations, and that the system would require neighbors to report neighbors who were in violation of the rules.

City Manager George Proakis said that the City’s current staffing would not allow robust efforts to seek out violators, whichever way the vote went. He noted that there are other new regulations, such as snow removal, dumpster regulations, and rat control efforts.

“If we wanted to say, have someone out there regularly scouring VRBO and Airbnb and having people renting entire houses — it seems to be the most significant complaints in general …,” Proakis said. “If we want people scouring websites before we get there I either need more staff, or a few years ago there were companies you could hire to do that for you.”

Councilor John Airasian said he has heard from many people talking about both the arguments for and against.

“For me this comes down to a quality of life issue and Watertown’s neighborhoods are precious and now more than even they need to be protected,” Airasian said. “I feel like there has been a tremendous amount of pressure put on some of the neighborhoods with all development going on. If people want to come to this area, there are places for them to go other than our neighborhoods.”

Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said he had a concern that the zoning amendment would allow a business use of a home, while other uses — such as a piano teacher having lessons in a house — would either not be allowed or allowed by getting a special permit approved. He also heard from many concerned residents.

“The last five and half years councilors were contacted repeatedly about issues with illegal Airbnbs that affect the quality of life,” he said. “They were asking that we do something about it. Unfortunately the proposal in front of us does not solve that problem in a way that does not burden the neighbors.”

Councilor John Gannon said he thought the proposal went against the direction that Watertown should be going.

“We want to incentivize affordable housing. We want community-based people living in Watertown, not transient people,” Gannon said. “We don’t want to put neighbors as the enforcing agency of the City for these and many regulations. I am voting no.”

Councilor Lisa Feltner said she believed the proposal removed many of the concerns raised by people, such as a property being bought as an investment just to use as a short term rental by requiring it to be the owner’s primary residence. She did research into the short term rentals that exist and found that most are rooms in a home, and they are rented out only at certain times of year, such as college graduations, the Boston Marathon, and the Head of the Charles.

Councilor Nicole Gardner said she met with a variety of people, both for and against the proposal. The ones who wanted to be able to use their home as short term rentals included someone who worked on commission and did it during slow times, and older people who want to supplement their income, or even people trying to afford to live in Watertown.

“They said, Nicole, I will have to move away. I can’t afford to stay, it’s so costly,” Gardner said. “To me this is lever. There are people with more house than disposable income. This is a source of additional income. They raised their kids, they know the people around them and they don’t want to move. They can’t afford to buy something smaller here and they want to stay on the street.”

Felter said she also heard from people who have rented their homes and rooms in their homes as short term rentals, but who did not feel comfortable going to meetings because many opposed Airbnbs. Some rely on the supplemental income from short term rentals.

“I know there are people, if we take this away, who aren’t going to be able to stay in their home,” Feltner said.

Feltner proposed an amendment to reduce the maximum number of renters from 10 to 8, but it lost 6-3.

Councilor Tony Palomba said that most of the complaints were about whole homes being rented, and he was confident that when people rent a room with the owner in the home that rules would be followed. He proposed an amendment to only allow renting a portion of a home while the owner is present, but not whole home rentals. That amendment lost 5-4.

Council President Mark Sideris said that, basically, people who currently operate short term rentals are running a shadow business, which has not been regulated locally.

“We have the opportunity tonight to regulate. Tonight we also have the opportunity to say no. I’m going to say no,” Sideris said. “I think this community asks a lot of a lot of people. More people tonight, I would say, are not really in support of this. Some are somewhat supportive, and some are very supportive.”

Whichever way the vote went, Proakis said that the City would soon be sending out letters to absentee owners to say that short term rentals are not allowed. If the proposal was rejected, Proakis said it would be more clear if a section is added specifically saying short term rentals are not allowed.

“It would be better to have in the use table something that defines Airbnbs, short term rentals and put ‘no’ across the board,” he said. “That would certainly make me feel better if we end up in court and end up in some sort of big appeal.”

The amendment to the zoning ordinance required a super majority of six votes in favor to pass, said Sideris. The Council voted 6-3 against the proposal, with Caroline Bays, Feltner, and Gardner voting “yes.”

After the vote on the short term rental proposal, the Council voted unanimously to allow the City administration to come up with language to adjust the ordinance to show short term rentals are not allowed and have it come back to the Council for approval.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *