Most of the dozens of dorm-like “crashpads” for airline employees scattered around the neighborhoods near Logan Airport are almost certainly illegal rentals, a GBH News investigation has found.
GBH News identified more than a dozen crashpads in East Boston alone that were not registered as short-term rental units or rooming houses with the city. Even if they were registered, they’re not meeting most of the standards forged during Boston’s 2018 debate over how to regulate short-term rentals through services like Airbnb.
The city’s Inspectional Services Department shut down a Geneva Street crashpad April 6 after a flight attendant who was staying at the apartment called the fire department over a faulty fire alarm. An inspector who responded to that call said the space was “illegal” and would be a “deathtrap” if a fire broke out. The department has since been reviewing the case.
Asked whether these “crashpads” are legal in general, a spokesman for Boston’s Inspectional Services Department said in an email “Although the term ‘crash pads’ is not recognized in the codes we enforce, it is our duty to ensure residents and visitors reside in safe, sanitary and code compliant units. … Property owners must ensure their rental units adhere to all applicable codes and requirements.”
The city’s short-term rental ordinance makes it clear that the current practice of crashpad owners renting out multiple beds in multiple rooms of an apartment is out of bounds.
The 2019 ordinance defines a short-term rental as renting a residential unit for occupancy for less than 28 days, if it’s in an owner-occupied condo or single- to three-family unit building. For two-family and three-family buildings, the owner-occupant must own all the units, and can only rent one.
The city allows three types of short-term rentals:
- Home shares are where the unit is the owner’s primary residence and is renting it out for a short time, for up to 10 guests, and limited to five bedrooms.
- A “limited share unit” is a rental in the owner’s primary residence while the owner is staying there.
- An “owner-adjacent unit” is where the unit is not the owner’s primary residence but is in the same two- or three-family building as their residence.
Certified lodging/rooming houses and bed and breakfasts aren’t subject to these short-term rental rules according to the 2019 ordinance and have their own local and state rules— but it is not at all clear if crashpads count as “rooming houses.”
Douglas Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, said any rental where four or more people share a bathroom and kitchen has to be licensed as a rooming house.
“It didn’t look to me like there’s anything even remotely legal about the crashpad scenario that you guys reported on,” he told GBH News.
Under state law, rooming houses allow for multiple people to live in a bedroom and rent from an owner. They have to be inspected and the licensed renewed annually, with fees contingent on the number of rooms. An owner illegally running a lodging house, can be fined up to $500 and jailed for up to three months.
In Boston, the location has to be zoned as a rooming house, and approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Owners also have to meet with the local neighborhood association and speak to the district city councilor, and get approval from the licensing board after a public hearing.
Housing attorney Adam Sherwin, who has represented landlords renting individual rooms and has looked into rooming house law, said unlicensed crashpad owners are “private people who are essentially renting [their units] out as hotels but not getting taxed.” He said taxes are “probably the biggest reason” these owners avoid going down the legal route to becoming a rooming house.
“You generally have a sanitary code that is going to apply, and you still have to comply quite a bit with many requirements,” he said.
He said if short-term rental standards were to be applied to crashpads, it’s “more of an open question,” or debatable, but it seems to problematic to have such large numbers of people renting a unit.
None of the crashpad owners GBH News could identify responded to requests for comment. Flight attendants who live in the pads said they don’t know much about housing rules.
Krystal Valdes, a flight attendant who stays in an East Boston crashpads, said she thinks that crashpads are legal because they’ve “existed for so long.” She also thinks airlines should provide dormitory-style living for flight attendants.
None of Boston’s four major domestic airlines — American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and United — answered questions about crashpads.
Andrew Pike, treasurer of the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association — the neighborhood where the Geneva Street crashpad was busted and where GBH identified several more — wrote on the organization’s public Facebook group: “Most cities make running a legitimate rooming house cost prohibitive and so we have illegal ones. Every single neighborhood near an airport anywhere in this country has them. Not that it makes it right.”
The board as a whole declined a GBH News request for an interview because, Pike said in an email, “None of the board members are interested in speaking on the topic.”
Current crashpad landlords looking to go legal may be out of luck. Quattrochi said MassLandlords helped a landlord who claimed she unknowingly bought a rooming house and tried to make things legal.
‘“She went to the Zoning Board of Appeals and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I have this property. It’s not rented compliantly. Let me be a rooming house, please,’” he recounted. Two meetings later, “the ZBA basically told her to take a hike.”
The difficulty of getting everything zoned and proper, he said, “could be why you have this black market or you know, this unlicensed housing.”
Margaret Farmer, an East Boston community activist and resident, said she worries about how little oversight the crashpads are getting.
“There’s a lack of safety measures and it’s only a matter of time until someone gets hurt,” Farmer said. “And that’s my biggest fear — we’re going to wind up cracking down in the future because someone’s been injured or died.”
She said city doesn’t have the resources to close them all down because East Boston only has one person from Inspectional Services covering the area, and the office is also under a lot of strain from new developers needing permits.
Farmer also thinks airlines should be responsible for a legal solution.
“I would like to see housing built by the airport above the terminals. These could be low-cost and high convenience with the staff and security in place to make for easy turnovers between visitors and a convenient location for airport workers,” she said.
Later this year, airline employees will have a legal alternative to residential crashpads in Boston.
Bruce McGehee, a JetBlue pilot from Alabama who used to be based out of Boston and stayed at residential crashpads, understands the desire for an inexpensive safe place to stay. He founded Hotel Crash Pad Network in 2017, which already operates in major cities including New York, Denver, Miami and Seattle. The company partners with hotels like Marriott and Hyatt to rent out rooms for 365 days yearly, giving the hotels assured revenue.
“Generally speaking, the hotel maintenance staff or an outside contractor will remove the existing beds so that we can replace those with our bunk beds or individual twin beds, depending on the hotel that we work with,” McGehee said. The hotel clears this with a fire marshal in advance and with their corporate offices.
“Everything is done above books and, you know, according to the legalities of the municipality,” he said. Some cities allow more beds in a room than others, and they conform to local health codes and rules.
“It’s a win for our clients in that they’re paying about the same amount that they would pay for a residential bed in East Boston or Orient Heights,” he said.