Airbnb report: Tanglewood season nets nearly $2M for Berkshires homeowners

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Berkshire homeowners earned nearly $2 million this summer by renting to Tanglewood performers, staffers and concertgoers, according to a report by the online rental service Airbnb.

The report came in response to a June 5 hearing organized by state lawmakers at Lenox Town Hall, said Will Burns, public policy director for Airbnb Massachusetts, in a phone interview from Washington.

"We heard from many hosts and their relationship to the Tanglewood festival," said Burns, who attended the hearing. "We like to point out how Airbnb is democratizing travel, helping to support small businesses by bringing in tourists and helping middle-class families earn a little more money."

He cited homeowners who testified at the hearing that "being able to rent out a room or a barn is the only way they can maintain a middle-class lifestyle in the Berkshires. In many instances, rentals keep housing affordable for people in the area who need additional income."

The report comes amid continuing debate on how to tax and inspect homes offered online for short-term rentals. And it provides a real measure of how significant the industry has become in the Berkshires, which boasts a variety of cultural and recreational attractions — particularly during the summer season.

According to the report, just over 1,000 Airbnb hosts in a dozen Berkshire communities benefited from the influx of Tanglewood patrons and staffers. Attendance at the festival totaled 350,014 this summer, the Boston Symphony reported.

In addition to Lenox, Stockbridge, West Stockbridge and Lee, homeowners in Alford, Great Barrington, Otis, Pittsfield, Richmond, Sheffield, Tyringham and Washington advertised and rented houses or rooms during between June 16 and Sept. 3 of this year. 

About 500 of those homes were owned by active hosts in Stockbridge, 170 in Pittsfield, 130 in Great Barrington, 70 in Lee and 60 in Lenox, according to Airbnb records.

"It is such gratifying news that Tanglewood has played a significant role in helping Berkshire residents who work with Airbnb gain additional income for their families," said Boston Symphony Managing Director Mark Volpe. "This report's finding is especially meaningful as it gives us a concrete example of Tanglewood's impact on the region's overall economy and supports the findings from the study released last spring, which stated that the festival's economic impact on the Berkshires exceeds $103 million."

Other findings from the Airbnb report:

- The median earnings of a typical host totaled $3,650 after expenses, nearly six times the income during the summer of 2014.

- Hosts in the 12 communities accommodated 10,620 Tanglewood patrons and staffers through Airbnb this summer, nearly four times the number of guests in 2014.

- The median nightly price of a typical Airbnb listing in the 12 communities during the past summer ranged from $85 for a private room to $200 for an entire home. Hosts determine the rental price, and they pay a 3 percent fee to Airbnb.

- New York was the top city for residents using Airbnb rentals followed by four Massachusetts cities — Boston, Cambridge, Arlington and Somerville — as well as San Francisco and Philadelphia.

- Statewide, over 11,000 residents hosted 592,000 guests via Airbnb last year, the study reported. The typical Massachusetts host was 45 and earned an average of nearly $7,000. About 57 percent of the homeowners are female and share their houses 60 nights or less during the year.

For Olga Weiss, 89, renting to Airbnb guests in the 1870s house she bought in 1964, originally as a second home, has been a lifeline, enabling her to meet expenses and "age in place," she told The Eagle.

The house at 180 West St. (Route 183), called Broadknolls, is within walking distance of Tanglewood, Kripalu and downtown. Weiss, who used to run a weekend bed-and-breakfast there and at times rented out the entire house, became a frequent Airbnb host in the summer of 2016. 

She rents two of her six bedrooms and "it improves my cash flow and it's a way for me to continue to live in my house and take care of ordinary expenses. The guests are self-selected, interesting folks and they deliberately seek out Airbnb rather than hotels because they like the personalized experience, they like talking to me, and I've got a great location."

Weiss, a onetime owner of the Blantyre Resort and of the former Monument Inn downtown, agrees that Airbnb rentals should pay state tax, but is skeptical of the need for formal inspections because of constant feedback from guests to the company. 

"The people who come to me don't want to go to hotels and motels, so I don't think I'm competition in that sense," she said. "While I'm not as expensive, I don't have the same amenities. I'm bare-bones, but it's charming, it's quiet, with wonderful gardens."

A widow since 1983, Weiss also opens up her home to her large extended family.

"Staying in the house is something I hope to do," she said, aided by near-continuous summer rentals for guests who stay several days or a week, and from time to time in the off-season. "It's vital to me, because at my age no one wants to hire me to do things."

Ruth Pearce, an Airbnb host in Stockbridge cited in the report, said in addition to guests during the Tanglewood season, "we've had diverse groups of travelers over the years, including two students studying acupuncture, a writer who stayed for a month to work on a book project, and a three-generation family who wanted to enjoy local activities from a relaxed home base."

"Meeting them and giving them a comfortable place to stay has a been a great experience for us and our little piece of The Berkshires," said Pearce, a member of the Stockbridge Planning Board who is involved in a working group reviewing zoning bylaws in the town.

She and her husband became Airbnb hosts four years ago, when they bought and extensively renovated a 19th century house after relocating to the Berkshires. Their Airbnb income helps cover their mortgage, property taxes and utility bills.

Airbnb's report stated the findings are all based on the company's internal data between June 16 and Sept, 3 of this year.

The report was issued against a backdrop of continued uncertainty on how to tax short-term stays statewide, as well as in local communities.

On Beacon Hill, several bills are on the table, but leaders so far this session have been unable to agree on a regulatory and taxation model for the industry, State House News Service reported.

A Senate plan to tax such rentals was dropped this summer during budget talks with the House. While traditional hotel and lodging sectors have expressed concerns about growing numbers of tax-free rentals, policymakers are also giving consideration to impacts of regulation on people who rent their properties only occasionally.

"We want the ability to collect and remit state and local taxes on behalf of our hosts," said Burns, the company's regional public policy director. `We're hopeful we'll be able to find a resolution and get some legislation passed."

In Lenox, the Planning Board will begin outreach efforts with residents this fall to get their input on the issues surrounding short-term rentals. The board's aim is to update zoning bylaw revisions for action by annual town meeting voters in May, said Chairwoman Pam Kueber.

"Airbnb's report underscores that the time is now to decide as a community how we want short-term rentals to fit into our longer-vision for our town," she said.

The town's current bylaw restricts seasonal short-term rental of rooms, 30 days or less, to no more than three guests, seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with weekend-only rentals permitted through Columbus Day. Those rentals are not allowed during the rest of the year.

Homeowners are permitted to rent for 30 days or more and those are not subject to any bylaw restrictions.

The Novus Group