Massachusetts Looks to Regulate Short-Term Rentals

The “sharing economy” has taken the United States by storm. In less than a decade, companies such as Uber, Handy, and Airbnb have become well-known brands and, in some places, market leaders. But the laws regulating these companies and their users can often seem like a gray area. Now some lawmakers are taking a close look to see if it’s time for state legislation of these activities.

Airbnb is the latest company to experience such    scrutiny. Founded in 2008, the website allows its users to list, find, and rent short-term housing. The site is popular among users who are seeking an affordable alternative to hotels. The site is also popular among property owners looking to rent out extra space, whether it be an entire house, an apartment, or just an extra room.

But not everyone is enamored with Airbnb. Renters have complained of substandard or even dangerous accommodations, and owners have complained of renters who have damaged their property. Beyond user complaints, Airbnb has also felt backlash in communities that see it as a way to evade land-use laws and taxes. Neighborhood residents often find that properties in quiet, residential areas are turned into de facto hotels or flophouses.

Airbnb claims that most of its users rent out properties on only a temporary basis and that it simply connects interested parties to one another. To that point,  its critics respond that the company has effectively created an online marketplace for transient housing. They also claim that Airbnb has taken too much housing off  market for local residents, thereby creating housing shortages.

Many states are now considering state legislation that would formally regulate the short-term rental market that has proliferated as a result of Airbnb. In Massachusetts, state legislation has been proposed that would require registration of all short-term lessors of property. The legislation would also impose safety standards and allow local governments to inspect properties for safety violations. The law would also impose a 5% tax on such rentals, similar to the tax levied on hotel stays.

If the law passes, Massachusetts would be the first state to regulate the short-term rental market. Some cities have already done so, including San Francisco, Portland, and Philadelphia. As sites such as Airbnb continue to grow, more states will have to determine if and how they are going to regulate their activities.

UMass Researchers Granted $1.6M for Robotics Development

What do Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, and the World Trade Center attacks all have in common? Obvious tragedy aside, the common factor in each of these disasters is the use of robots to assist first responders in rescue and cleanup missions. Robotics technology has evolved exponentially over the last two decades, along with the potential to save victims of disaster faster with decreased risk to first responders and other rescue personnel.

A research team at UMass Lowell led by Dr. Holly Yanco, founder of the UMass Robotics Lab and director of the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center, have been awarded four grants totaling more than $1 million toward the development and study of robotics for use in rescue and damage assessment, as well as improving mobility and increasing independence for the elderly or disabled. At a time when science and technology experts around the globe, including notable names such as Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, and Elon Musk, are speaking out against the dangers of implementing weaponized artificial intelligence, Yanco’s team are driving research in the opposite direction and looking for ways to improve and save human lives.

The grants awarded will fund research and development in four areas of robotics: improving communication and assessment between robots and control centers in disaster situations, educating rescue personnel in the best methods for using robots in the field, research in robotics for mobile manufacturing, and research and development on low-cost robotic arms to assist and improve mobility for the physically disabled.

The researchers are utilizing a wide variety of devices in their research that are available to the public, such as Google Glass and touchscreen laptops and tablets. In the future, this may lead to technology that could be integrated with pre-existing resources for disaster-response teams. One of the most interesting areas of study will be the progress made toward using robots to create a 3D map of disaster sites to better prepare rescue crews and allow command centers to create fully developed action plans in shorter spans of time.

Does Massachusetts Need a New Pipeline?

Last year, plans from a Houston energy company to introduce a new natural gas pipeline in New England sparked fierce debate, and the conversation is ongoing. Kinder Morgan, introduced The Northeast Energy Direct Project, which is a proposal to build a pipeline that would connect Massachusetts to abundant natural gas sources in Pennsylvania shale fields. However, the plan has met with significant resistance from local communities.

The initial proposal had the pipeline entering Massachusetts in Richmond at the border with New York. The pipeline would then skirt the upper western edge of MA and end in Dracut. Local residents of the towns that would be affected were quick to fight the idea of subjecting their communities to the construction and potential danger for explosions. In the face of such intense opposition, Kinder Morgan has since replotted the course of the pipeline. It now veers north into New Hampshire before coming to an end in Dracut.

Although the pipeline now bypasses many Massachusetts communities, it still faces avid disapproval from locals.

Massachusetts uses natural gas to heat about half the homes in the state, with two-thirds of the state’s electricity also being fed by natural gas. The share is only expected to increase as dilapidated coal plants shut down. Last year, two of MA’s coal plants ceased to function with a third expected to die out in 2017.

In a state where hard winters are a commonality, this is a disturbing trend. Gordon van Welie, head of ISO New England, the region’s power grid operator, said the region is already running out of available pipeline capacity to provide power during times of high demand. This has created issues such as shortages and spikes in wholesale prices of natural gas.

The volatile fluctuation in heating costs can cause havoc for residents and businesses, not to mention chilly living conditions. Without a steady estimate of fuel costs, business owners have a hard time budgeting and allocating funds to shipping and wholesale costs. According to the Beacon Hill Institute, the introduction of the new pipeline would save small businesses $1,238 annually. Industrial businesses would save an $25,415 annually.

Opponents of the pipeline believe that introducing another source of fossil fuels to the state is not the answer. Shanna Cleveland, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the region should pursue energy efficient practices more aggressively and find ways to keep the demand for natural gas steady. A study conducted by Black & Veatch has shown that another pipeline would be unnecessary if renewable power and energy efficiency can keep natural gas demand flat.


Construction for New Allston – Brighton Commuter Rail Begins

This spring marked the commencement of construction for the new Boston Landing commuter rail station, part of the Allston-Brighton commuter line.

The new station will be located adjacent to the Massachusetts Turnpike as part of commuter line that connects Framingham and Worcester to South Station. It is expected to open in fall 2016, two years later than the original projected completion date.

MBB-2The station is estimated to cost approximately $20 million ($4 – $6 million more than the original projected cost) and is being financed by New Boston Landing LLC, a New Balance development company. It will provide service to employees of the well-known shoe company, and direct access to the company’s planned Boston Landing development, a complex of restaurants, shops, a hotel, and athletic facilities. The headquarters are still under construction.

A select panel put together by Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year to study the state of the MBTA suggested that the agency should put expansion plans on hold. However, the panel also stated that projects like this one—which leverage private or federal money—should be exempt from any moratorium and should serve as an example of the type of construction the MBTA should pursue “to stretch every dollar.”

But the protracted timeline also illustrates some of the potential difficulties of a public-private partnership. When private companies foot the bill for major infrastructure projects, the state may find itself beholden to their timeline. With a project like Boston landing, where a private company is ultimately paying the bill, it can be difficult to negotiate penalties for delayed construction.

“Even if it was behind schedule, there aren’t any financial penalties because the private entity has agreed to foot that bill,” said MassDOT spokesman Mike Verseckes.

It is an issue that the state could potentially encounter more frequently in the future, as the state considers other opportunities for public-private partnerships. Last year, the Transportation Department launched a commission to help bring in more private sector partnerships, such a bridge in Cape Cod where the developer could potentially charge tolls and collect revenue.

If the state plans to embark on further public-private partnerships that relate to higher-stakes infrastructure projects—affecting highways, bridges or rails already used by commuters—it would be necessary for officials to take a closer look at ways to negotiate financial penalties for delays.

WPI Introduces Data Tool to Evaluate Massachusetts’ Competitive Edge

Worcester Polytechnic Institute has announced the development of a new system to help evaluate Massachusetts’ competitive position among leading technology states. The program has been dubbed the Massachusetts’ Technology, Talents and Economic Reporting System (MATTERS).

MATTERS is an online system that consolidates a collection of independent national rankings along with a set of key cost, economic and talent metrics into a single source for use by all parties interested in building a successful future for Massachusetts’ technology-based businesses. The platform allows users to compare technology strengths between states. For example, they can examine and assess how Massachusetts and New York stack up on talent, cost and economy metrics, as well as national rankings on tax climate and technology indexes.

This data provides companies with critical information while also providing policymakers and advocates with dynamic, searchable data to substantiate public policies, leading to decisions that help attract and retain business to the state.

“This reporting dashboard makes important data accessible to those who need it. It also demonstrates the impact that our faculty and students can have on the state’s competitiveness, especially in the technology sector,” Stephen Flavin, vice president of academic and corporate development at WPI, and a member of the Massachusetts High Tech Council, said in a statement Wednesday.

The tool can be accessed online here.


“Snow Loans” To Help Small Business Owners Recover from Difficult Winter

The Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation (MGCC) has issued its first snowstorm loan, part of an initiative to help small business owners bounce back after record snowfall this winter. Up to $1 million has been set aside in a fund that is available to qualifying businesses throughout the state.

“As small businesses throughout Massachusetts continue to recover from extreme winter weather conditions that have restricted business, we are pleased to announce this low-interest loan program is available to help them regain their financial stability,” said Governor Baker in a statement late February. “While our local economies continue to bounce back, we encourage everyone to continue shopping at their local retailers, restaurants and small businesses.”

The $5,000 to $10,000 micro-loans are available at low interest rates and are intended to help businesses in heavily impacted communities to recover. In the wake of lost revenue from this particularly harsh winter, the funds could make the difference for many locals.

“It’s been a tough winter and these micro-loans can make the difference to meeting a payroll, or paying the rent. We’re here to help and hope other businesses that need a hand will take advantage of this great opportunity,” MGCC President Larry Andrews said.

Massachusetts saw record snowfall this year of 108.1 inches, compared to the highest recorded levels of 107.6 inches in 1996. Closures and road bans brought down revenue for many business owners this season.

“Our small businesses are the backbone of our economy and it is important that we help ensure their longevity by lending a helping hand when they need it most,” said Lieutenant Governor Polito in a statement. “We are confident that our entire economy will continue to recover from one of the toughest winters we have seen in decades.”

MGCC issued the first micro-loan, set at $10,000, to Dorchester caterer Down Home Delivery & Catering last Tuesday. MGCC will be responsible for funding the loans, collection of interest and principal payments, managing the loan portfolio, and loan approvals. It is expected that businesses in heavily impacted areas, particularly those in Boston and gateway cities such as Worcester and Leominster, will receive priority. The program will continue through May 2015.


Baker Takes On Skills Gap

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has assigned three of his top deputies to oversee an effort that would better align the state’s education and workforce training systems with the needs of employers. The decision underlines the skills gap as a remaining obstacle to real economic growth.

Baker signed an executive order formally establishing a “Workforce Skills Cabinet”, which will develop goals, objectives and metrics with the input of individuals, businesses, government agencies and community-based organizations and advocacy groups. The Cabinet will be responsible for implementing by region the various suggestions for improving vocational and educational opportunities within the state, reporting their progress back to the governor.

The Workforce Skills Cabinet will be chaired by Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ron Walker. Walker, a Democrat, was a cofounder of Next Street, a merchant bank that provides capital to entrepreneurs in urban areas. Baker said he anticipates that Walker will bring “the new, innovative approach he took in his role at Next Street” to his new position.

“I share the governor-elect’s emphasis on connecting education to work, his commitment to workforce development, and look forward to helping carry out his mission to make Massachusetts a great place to live and work in every region of the Commonwealth,” Walker said in a statement.

The inability to locate and hire skilled employees was by far the top concern expressed by Massachusetts employers last year.Over the coming months, Walker will be collaborating with Education Secretary Jim Peyser and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash to create an effective plan to address the disconnect between available jobs and skilled workers by the summer.

“More than anything, we need to make sure we find a way to link our workforce to job opportunities that exist out there for our citizens. These are inseparable goals and critical strengths for the commonwealth to continue to be successful over time,” Baker said at a press conference.

The skills issue crosses almost every industry, from manufacturers in the Blackstone Valley to software companies in Boston’s Innovation District to research and engineering firms on the North Shore. Recommendations will take into account the differing economic and demographic needs of each region.