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Proposed Legislation to Restrict Airbnb, Other Short-Term Housing Rentals on Track for Expected City Council Action

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the August 2017 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz*

A bill before City Council to restrict short-term housing rentals in the district — through such services as Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) — may have another public hearing sometime after council members return from their recess in mid-September, a council spokesperson tells The InTowner.

That is sure to delight the bill’s sponsor, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyon R. McDuffie, who introduced the legislation — the “Short-term Rental Regulation and Affordable Housing Protection Act of 2017” — in January and presided over its first public hearing in April. McDuffie, of course, would like to see the bill move on to a markup by council members and be voted into law.

[Editor’s Note: As we were preparing this report for next day publication we received a call from Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans –- himself, he assured us, a supporter of the need to rein in Airbnb and similar abuses — who did confirm the expectation of another hearing, but that it would be on a substitute bill to be introduced by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the language of which Mendelson feels would more clearly enunciate a “middle ground between those who call for a ban  entirely” and those who acknowledge that there is a legitimate reason to allow for individuals to be able to earn some extra income from a spare bedroom in their apartment or house.]

McDuffie says the legislation is needed to address the lack of affordable housing in DC which is exacerbated when apartment owners rent their units out on a short-term basis only to visitors and other non-residents at sky-high prices. These apartments, if available for rent under a normal year-long rental agreement, would go for at least market rate for a given neighborhood and be available to DC residents.

Airbnb, however, has its aficionados among property owners who say they can use and enjoy the extra-income by renting out their apartments. Some apartment owners who rent their places out short-term say they have lost jobs or have otherwise fallen on hard times and rely on short-term rental income to keep the mortgage paid. As private property owners, they don’t see why the city should have any say in what they do with that property.

But, of course, regulations abound for property owners, including homeowners who simply want to rent out an English basement, for example.

According to McDuffie, “There are more than 6,000 D.C. rental units available on Airbnb.com, the largest short-term rental platform. Not all of these units are replacing permanent residents, but many are. Informal estimates suggest that nearly 40 percent of listings are controlled by commercial operators who control more than one listing in the District. Such operators are likely to be operating commercially, repurposing critical housing units for use by tourists.”

The Tenant’s Advocacy Coalition (TENAC), which represents the interests of tenants in DC,  agrees, charging that short-term rentals destabilize rent control by taking thousands of units off the market to use as expensive vacation rentals. Worse, they say, are apartment owners who are renting out multiple units in one or more buildings.

TENAC asserts that more than 37% of Airbnb listings are controlled by commercial interests and operators; two-thirds of Airbnb listings are for the entire home or apartment; rent-controlled buildings in Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan have been lost to working and low-income families who need housing; and that commercial Airbnb listings grew by more than 34% last year.

TENAC further asserts that converting otherwise available apartments to short-term rentals provides huge investor incentives — with profits of 100% or more — and that studies show a history of past racial discrimination in the conversion of housing to hotel use.

“Let us be clear,” TENAC Chairman Jim McGrath stated in a widely distributed flyer, “we are not hostile to affluent new renters, home buyers, or those renting out space in their homes or apartments for added income so long as they do not destroy rent-controlled housing, or long-term tenants, and respect the rights of those who were here first. “Conversion of a rent-controlled apartment building to an AIRBNB hotel, however, is a pernicious attack on affordable housing.”

According to Councilmember McDuffie, current law in DC requires that short-term rental operators obtain a business license, but the law is weakly enforced; hosts can also obtain a home occupation permit for one- or two-family buildings, but hosts must be present during the guest’s stay.

“Although current regulations are designed to protect housing and neighborhood quality of life,” McDuffie notes, “current law does not provide adequate tracking and enforcement mechanisms to make enforcement of our laws feasible.”

McDuffie says his bill would update the process for residents to get a license for short-term rental use in their homes. Hosts with a short-term rental license would be able to share their homes for 365 nights a year, as long as they are present in their home. Vacation rentals — in which the host is not present during the visitor’s stay — would be permitted for 15 nights per year.

Further, the legislation would create a new category of business license for short-term rentals. Hosts would be required to post their short-term rental BBL number on the hosting website. At the same time, hosting platforms would be responsible for performing basic verification of BBL numbers before posting a listing. These steps would vastly simplify enforcement and ensure widespread compliance. Fines and penalties would be increased to discourage hosting platforms and commercial hosts from abusing short-term rentals in the first place.

“Instead of trying to micromanage the rules for short-term rentals, asserts McDuffie,  the legislation leaves authority over most of the relevant regulations with the Zoning Commission . . . [and] would provide the tools necessary to ensure that DC laws are followed.”

*Associate Editor William G. Schulz, a resident of Dupont Circle since the 1980s, has been a journalist specializing in science and investigative reporting for over 30 years.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.