Scene of the Crime
Lynnfield is hardly the first city to wrestle with online rentals. It’s a poorly regulated industry, and in Massachusetts—where Airbnb generates nearly $50 million in rentals a year—legislation to tax it and address safety concerns is limping through the State House. Across the country the issue has sparked wars between cities and states over who has the power to regulate these transient rentals. Some states, such as Arizona and Indiana, have gone so far as to introduce legislation that would make it illegal for cities to ban short-term rentals.
In the wake of the shooting, Lynnfield amended its laws to outright ban any property owner who lives in a residential district from renting out his home for less than 30 days. It doesn’t matter if you post it on Airbnb or give the keys over to a family friend in exchange for a few bucks—renting your home in Lynnfield for a couple of weeks in the summer or while you’re away on Thanksgiving break is now against the law. “What’s weird about that is they did it in a very comprehensive fashion,” says Peter Karol, an attorney and an associate professor who teaches property law at New England Law Boston (he is not involved in the case). “To solve this problem, they sort of made a major policy change for the entire town…it seems like a broad policy decision if it was really based on one criminal event at one house.”
Airbnb and HomeAway have said very little about the Lynnfield case. HomeAway didn’t comment, while Will Burns, Airbnb’s public policy director, tells me he wasn’t surprised by the town’s reaction. “I understand the impulse,” says Burns, previously a Chicago alderman. Local lawmakers can be subjected to immense pressure from constituents to regulate the sharing economy. Throw a murder into the mix, and everything is intensified. Still, Burns says, there are more-effective ways to protect a neighborhood’s quality of life than banning property owners from renting out their homes on Airbnb. Styller agrees and has filed a lawsuit against the town’s zoning board in Massachusetts Land Court to win back his right to use Airbnb. “I’m very comfortable fighting this,” Styller says. “People have rights to rent their property.”
The outcome of the lawsuit hinges on the fine print of Lynnfield’s bylaws and how one interprets the International Building Code. At an initial hearing, Lynnfield’s attorney argued that short-term rentals had always been banned in the town and the decision to amend the bylaw was merely a means of clarifying that. If the town didn’t restrict short-term rentals, he argued, Styller’s use of Airbnb and HomeAway could become so frequent and disruptive that it might as well be a business. “It becomes burdensome on the neighborhood in a way that, say, a hotel or a motel would be,” he told the judge.
It’s too early to say whether Lynnfield’s ban will stand, and if so, what it might mean for other towns that want to outlaw short-term rentals. For now, both Styller and Lynnfield have dug in for a fight.
Whether Styller or Lynnfield prevails in court is of little concern to Heath’s mother, Sharon. Since her son’s murder, she spends most of her days alone in her small Randolph home, surrounded by photos of her two deceased children. Too often she replays the night of the shooting in her mind.
She was asleep when two police officers knocked on her door around 5 a.m. They gave her a slip of paper with a phone number and told her to call the hospital for information about Heath. Sleep still clouding her eyes, Sharon grabbed her phone and began dialing. She assumed her son was in an accident and needed to be picked up. Once the woman who answered began talking, though, Sharon blurted out, “Please don’t tell me my child is gone.” To this day, she isn’t sure why she said it. The voice on the other end of the line said, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and Sharon broke down.
Nothing has felt right since then. It has been a painful and frustrating year of grief for Sharon, who says she didn’t meet with police until late August, nearly three full months after her son’s death. By that point, newspapers had reported that two off-duty Boston police officers had attended the party, yet investigators still had nothing to show for their work. A detective told her the case was moving slowly, witnesses weren’t cooperating, and it could easily take two years for police to make an arrest. More recently, Sharon heard that the district attorney has begun conducting grand juries in order to compel witnesses to testify, but she’s not optimistic that her son’s murderer will be caught anytime soon. The way she sees it, the town of Lynnfield wants to sweep the whole affair under the rug and move on, more interested in banning short-term rentals than finding her son’s killer. “My son’s murder is not a priority to them,” she says. “They’re more concerned about the value of that house than the value of my son’s life.”
As of press time, Styller’s home is still for rent on Airbnb. The ad describes Lynnfield as one of the “safest areas in the state of Massachusetts.” There is no mention of the murder.