Airbnb Questions DC Bill
Legislation proposes restricted home-sharing

Airbnb is fighting proposed legislation to restrict home-sharing in Washington, D.C., that was introduced Jan. 31 to help combat the lack of affordable housing in the District.

The bill, if approved, would require hosts to obtain a new category of business licenses and cap the number of nights they can rent out their properties without being present at 15.

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) proposed legislation designed to restrict home-sharing companies like Airbnb in the hope of ending “illegal hotels” in Washington, D.C.

If the bill is passed, both noncompliant hosts and business platforms will be fined. Half the fine would be allocated to the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund in order to finance affordable-housing projects. The vote to pass the bill is anticipated to take place within the next two months.

McDuffie’s Communications Director Nolan Treadway said the home-sharing business should be regulated.

“We want to create a process so that people can easily enter this market but do so legally,” Treadway said.

Valerie Ervin, the senior adviser to the Working Families Party, a minor progressive political party, said one of the key motivations for implementing regulation is to help end D.C.’s housing crisis.

“It’s about just enforcing the current regulations and beefing them up and making sure that people who are doing this are following the rule of law,” Ervin said.

Ervin said her group exposed what she called an “illegal hotel.”

After an entire apartment building in Columbia Heights was taken off the market, Ervin said she investigated by renting a room for three nights. She discovered that all the apartments had been repurposed for short-term rental. By the end of her stay, she owed almost $1200.

“The sad truth about the sting is that the amount of money that I paid for three nights is what a lot of families pay for rent for a whole month, especially in that neighborhood,” Ervin said.

According to Ervin, thousands of units that could be used for affordable housing are rented out instead.

Ervin said another practice that inspired the legislation is the renting of “party houses,” or when residential spaces are rented out as venues. These can create several safety concerns including unknown members entering neighborhood communities and dangerous conditions in case of fire. The proposed bill aims to improve safety with more regulation.

Airbnb Press Secretary Crystal Davis said the company takes issue with the legislation, as its proposed restrictions on short-term rental hosting may affect more than just the targeted operators.

“The primary reasons why our hosts are using the platform are to pay their bills, to pay their mortgage, to support their families,” Davis said.

In a statement, Airbnb said the company believes the 15-night cap is too restrictive, though Treadway said the number was generated based on the average number of a worker’s vacation days.

“This current proposal is unworkable and a clear nod to hotel-industry funded organizations eager to attack regular families sharing their homes to protect the industry’s bottom line,” the Airbnb statement reads.

Airbnb reported that on average, its hosts in the District have lived in the city for 13 years and over 75 percent of them rent out their primary residences. Since 2015, Airbnb said it has helped raise $12 million in taxes for the District.

Ervin said the new law would improve the city’s ability to collect taxes and regulate businesses like Airbnb.

“What this bill actually does is just enforces the law, and it makes sure that there is a tracking mechanism put in place so that the city knows who is leasing short term,” Ervin said. “It makes the enforcement important because right now, the District doesn’t even know if they’re getting paid the taxes that are owed to them by these short-term rentals.”

Airbnb has encountered similar experiences in the past. Recently, Arlington County amended its short-term rental regulations. Arlington’s regulations are much more lax than those in McDuffie’s bill. The county has a 185-day rental cap as opposed to D.C.’s 15.

Davis said the company is concerned with the lack of specificity in the legal language of the proposed bill.

“Most of the information that they’ve been providing has been purely anecdotal, and other than like one example, we don’t see the level of heightened concern that they have.” Davis said. “For us, we need them to accurately define what they mean.”

Students have expressed concern that the bill will limit the affordability of alternative housing for their families.

Aoife Croucher (SFS ’19) said if she and her family did not use Airbnb to rent an apartment before she moved into her freshman dorm, she would have likely stayed in a hotel.

“My initial reaction is it seems a little restrictive,” Croucher said. “It is definitely worthwhile to target people who take entire hotels and rent them out using Airbnb because that’s draining the housing supply.”

Gabriela Tew (COL ’20) said Airbnb offers more realistic and affordable options than hotels do.

“For Easter Break, my parents are coming up to Washington, D.C., to visit me,” Tew said. “We found that an Airbnb was less expensive than a hotel and more comfortable.”

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