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Airbnb takes Boston to court over city “draconian” short-term rental rules

Argues city’s laws violate Constitution, federal and state laws

The city of Boston has new rules surrounding short-term rentals that are set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. The rules are designed to limit the growing number of short-term rentals in the city by restricting who can list their house or apartment on a short-term rental site.

But according to the most prominent short-term rental site, Airbnb, Boston’s short-term rental rules violate the Constitution, multiple federal laws, and Massachusetts state law. Therefore, the site is asking a federal judge to invalidate the city’s rules.

This week, Airbnb sued the city of Boston in federal court, claiming that the city’s short-term rental ordinance requires the site (and similar sites) to police its platform far more than it does now and share confidential user information with the city.

As the Boston Globe wrote this week, the city’s rules would place serious restrictions on who can rent out a unit or house via the short-term rental site.

From the Globe report:

Under the rules set to take effect in January, Airbnb investors and apartment tenants would be prohibited from renting their homes by the night, and property owners would not be allowed to list more than one unit on the website. Airbnb has about 6,300 listings in Boston. Studies suggest an outsized share of its business comes from investors and other hosts the rules are aimed at curtailing.

Airbnb claims that the city’s rules go “much further than that,” and threaten short-term rental sites with “draconian” punishments should they violate the city’s rules.

“This is a case about a city trying to conscript home-sharing platforms into enforcing regulations on the city’s behalf, in a manner that would thwart both federal and Massachusetts law. The City of Boston has enacted an Ordinance limiting short-term residential rentals by hosts. But it goes much further than that,” Airbnb claims in its lawsuit filing.

“The Ordinance also enlists home-sharing platforms like Airbnb into enforcing those limits under threat of draconian penalties, including $300-per-violation-per-day fines and complete banishment from doing business in Boston,” Airbnb continues.

“Airbnb believes that home-sharing may be lawfully regulated, and it has worked with dozens of cities to develop the tools they need to do so without violating federal or state law,” the filing adds. “Boston’s heavy-handed approach, however, crosses several clear legal lines and must be invalidated.”

According to Airbnb, Boston’s short-term rental rules would also force the site and others like it to “actively police third-party content on their websites by penalizing the design and operation of their platforms and restricting and imposing severe financial burdens on protected commercial speech.”

And the site claims that the city’s rules would require it to “to disclose to the City confidential information about its users without any legal process or precompliance review.”

Airbnb also claims that the city requires short-term rental platforms to enter into nebulous “agreements” with the city that carry heavy penalties.

“The Ordinance, for example, compels Airbnb to enter into undefined so-called ‘agreements’ with the City that will require Airbnb to take down listings posted by third-parties and prevent whatever scope of listings in whatever manner Boston dictates—or else be barred from Boston altogether,” Airbnb claims.

According to Airbnb, the city’s rules violate the Communications Decency Act, the Stored Communications Act, the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

To that end, the company is asking a judge to nullify the city’s rules.

The city, of course, is standing by its rules but is not commenting on the lawsuit.

“We cannot comment due to pending litigation,” Boston city pokesperson Samantha Ormsby said in a statement provided to HousingWire.

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