Taxing the Host: Charlestown AirBNB Host Defends Service

February 23, 2015
By
Joe Bianco of Green Street, who has been an AirBNB house sharing host since 2011, says the criticism of AirBNB and the rush to regulate/tax it is short-sighted. Standing in front of a wall on his staircase that guests sign with personal messages before they leave, he touted the tremendous amount of business he and other hosts bring to Charlestown. His visitors include folks from Britain, Germany, Australia, Canada, all 50 states, and even Charlestown residents who are in need of some extra space for visiting relatives.

Joe Bianco of Green Street, who has been an AirBNB house sharing host since 2011, says the criticism of AirBNB and the rush to regulate/tax it is short-sighted. Standing in front of a wall on his staircase that guests sign with personal messages before they leave, he touted the tremendous amount of business he and other hosts bring to Charlestown. His visitors include folks from Britain, Germany, Australia, Canada, all 50 states, and even Charlestown residents who are in need of some extra space for visiting relatives.

A package lay on the doorstep of Joe Bianco’s Green Street home some time back.

The package had come from an Australian family.

It contained candy, pictures of Australia, other Aussie cultural favorites and even some Vegemite to top it all off.

It’s the kind of thing guests at his unit – a first floor apartment that he has rented out since 2011 via the AirBNB house sharing site – commonly do after having a great stay in Charlestown, eating at the restaurants, and perusing the shops on Main Street as they go about the typical trek of a Boston tourist.

“These folks who come here actually do become your friends,” he said. “I have a family from Australia who sent me a parcel at a cost of $80. They did that because they had such a great time here. For the people who come here and stay with me, they want this experience. Some have come a couple of times and they really do become like family members.”

Bianco is just one of many homeowners in Charlestown who utilize unused space in their homes to rent to travelers or local people who need somewhere to stay for a couple of nights. It’s part of the new “shared economy” that – for house sharing – is driven mainly by the website AirBNB. AirBNB, based in San Francisco, acts as a platform to host rooms for rent, to run reviews of those places and to facilitate booking those spaces. It is a worldwide platform, like the car sharing service Uber, but it has really taken off in Boston over the last few years. At last count, there are at least 50 hosts in Charlestown renting anything from small bedrooms for $50 a night to entire penthouse condos in the Navy Yard for $800 a night.

Recently, the trailblazing service and shared-economy lifestyle has bumped up against tradition. Some neighbors in Charlestown and beyond have complained about the situation, and politicians are moving to levy taxes and regulations on those who host visitors. Furthermore, some bad actors have given the whole bunch kind of a mysterious and negative aura.

Bianco said there is nothing mysterious or odd about the situation he runs, and said it’s an overall positive for Charlestown because most of the 250 or more folks he has hosted spend money in the neighborhood – money that would otherwise be spent in some other international city or in downtown Boston.

“These people who come here, so many of them tell me they wouldn’t have come to Boston if it weren’t for AirBNB because it is just too expensive to rent a hotel room,” he said. “People who stay here, they don’t want the plastic feeling of a hotel. Some come here and you don’t see them at all. The majority though want to talk to you and want to hear about Charlestown and want to know about the local area around them. They want to know from someone who lives here about the city. They want to have dinner and a glass of wine and hear what you have to say.”

Beyond that, he said much is ignored about what the house sharing site brings to the neighborhood – and beyond new and interesting people – Bianco said he and other hosts bring business to Charlestown.

“There’s not enough written about what this brings to the neighborhood and the City of Boston,” he said. “This brings a tremendous amount of business and money here. They spend a lot of money here in Charlestown and in Boston. They go on Whale Watches and they use all the restaurants locally. That is a very positive thing and I don’t hear enough about that.”

In fact, what is often heard about AirBNB hosts is the possibility of something going wrong. There are anecdotes about the occasional loud party or guests who take over a neighborhood or go to the wrong house. That, however, is something Bianco said is few and far between, and he believes that the fears are unjustly levied upon the hundreds of hosts that do the right thing.

“I can’t speak for my neighbors,” he said. “We’re all close here. They all know I do this and no one has ever complained to me. It’s not a frat house. I have that written into my listing. It says, ‘This is not a frat house and anyone causing trouble will be asked to leave.’ I hear the stories of people subletting properties and that’s wrong. I’m completely against that. These people have to be dealt with, certainly. But most of the people I know who do AirBNB care about the neighborhood. They need to weed out the bad from the good, but don’t penalize those of us who are doing the right thing.”

Penalizing, Bianco said, is a real point of contention right now for those who host guests via AirBNB – and it isn’t any small group of people if you include Charlestown and several surrounding communities.

Bianco said he was born on Bunker Hill Street, but his family moved to West Roxbury when he was young. He grew up there, but his mother’s family home on Green Street remained in the family. He visited his grandmother there all the time, and when she passed, his aunt and uncle – retired Schraffts’s workers – took up ownership.

When they were too old to care for the home, Bianco’s family tapped him to come in and help.

Certainly, the old home needed some TLC. He fixed it up, and eventually inherited the home. He set himself up in the top floor, but found out he had a lot of empty space.

At the same time, property taxes, heating oil and other utilities were going nowhere but up.

That’s when a friend of his in Charlestown clued him in to AirBNB. He investigated the service and how it worked, and was convinced it could help him make end’s meet.

It has, he said, allowed him to keep the family home.

“This is my home and my family’s home,” he said. “For me, AirBNB has allowed me to be able to keep my home. The property taxes have gone up, the water bills have gone up, utilities have gone up; everything goes up. The politicians say they want to help the homeowner, but when there’s something that’s helping homeowners, they want to penalize it.”

Bianco said he doesn’t understand the rush by state lawmakers and the City of Boston to begin levying taxes and hotel excise fees on AirBNB hosts. His small apartment has a beautiful living room, a modest kitchen and a comfortable bedroom – far from what one would expect at a hotel.

Aside from that, he said he already pays property taxes, and he also gets a 1099 from AirBNB to pay income taxes on the money he makes through the service.

Adding another tax, he said, would threaten to complicate matters.

“People who are traveling should have the right to choose,” he said. “Those who do provide this alternative to travelers shouldn’t be taxed to death because the politicians see it as just a revenue source. These are our homes and we’re taxed on them already in numerous ways. I’m sick of paying taxes on taxes on taxes. I pay property taxes on this unit. I pay income taxes on the money I make from it. It isn’t like a hotel; it’s still my home and I live here too. Why should I be taxed additionally for this?”

The City and the state continue to review regulations and potential laws to address AirBNB.

Seth Daniel can be reached at seth@reverejournal.com