As longtime D.C. residents and Airbnb superhosts since 2017, Harris, 67, and her husband, Noble Davis, 66, have spent many an evening out on their deck, getting to know their guests over a glass of wine (and, lately, over a six-foot distance). “We’ve had people from Russia, from Saudi Arabia,” she said. “We have definitely made some friends that we stay in touch with.”
Harris and Davis have learned to recognize the patterns of incoming and outgoing travel to Washington. “When we get multiple requests, we know that there’s a protest or some kind of march going on,” Harris said. So when two came in for the first week of January at the last minute, they glanced at the calendar and realized the potential renters were likely planning to protest the electoral college vote.
Usually, Harris doesn’t think twice about housing protesters. “We are quite accustomed to people coming to D.C. to exercise their First Amendment rights. Generally, they are peaceful, they’re respectful, and they take care of our property and our neighborhood,” she said. But she had seen reports that these particular protesters could be violent. “At that point, we looked at each other and we said, ‘We can’t have this.’”
Harris and Davis narrowly dodged the horror that many Airbnb hosts around Washington didn’t. Of the estimated several thousand Trump supporters who participated in the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, a number found lodging through Airbnb, despite the company’s efforts to cancel reservations made by members of hate groups. But with the imminent inauguration of Joe Biden — an event that extremist Trump supporters have already vowed to protest — hosts have been worried about once again inadvertently quartering insurrectionists.
On Wednesday, after this story was initially published, Airbnb announced it would “cancel reservations in the Washington, D.C. metro area during the Inauguration week” and “prevent any new reservations in the Washington, D.C. area from being booked during that time.” Hosts whose existing reservations are canceled will be reimbursed, and guests whose reservations are canceled will be refunded.
These measures were similar to those that many local activists had been promoting in the days since the riot. But before Airbnb weighed in, some hosts had been devising their own creative ways to keep potential insurrectionists out of their homes.
On Thursday, a group that had booked Harris’s Airbnb rental for the week of Jan. 18 nearly a year prior canceled their reservation. They were coming to Washington for a reunion, not for the inauguration. But after the terrifying spectacle at the Capitol, they were worried their visit might put them in harm’s way.
Initially, Harris was relieved; she didn’t want her guests to wind up in an unsafe situation either. But Harris’s English-basement rental suddenly appeared as available again. So she decided to discourage any potential renters in the most polite way she could think of: She more than doubled the price, to $500 per night. “We don’t get any takers at $500,” she said. She later simply made it unavailable those nights.
Other hosts incorporated subtle (and not-so-subtle) signals into their profiles to telegraph that would-be disrupters of the inauguration will not be welcomed.
A few weeks back, Elisa Cordova, an opera singer and Airbnb host who divides her time between New York and Northwest Washington, declined a booking request from a young woman who said she was coming to Washington the first week of January to help “stop the steal.” The young woman messaged Cordova to ask how far her home was from the White House and whether the property was “patriot-friendly.”
“I am a patriot as well!” Cordova wrote back. “I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of protests. More importantly, I believe in respecting free and fair elections and respecting our Constitution.”
After watching the attack on the Capitol, Cordova, whose property had been available to rent during the week of inauguration, “did a little pre-damage control.” In the photo section of her listing, she added a smiling photograph of Michelle Obama with a caption below: “For the following dates, January 16 to 21, please be aware this is not a ‘patriot’-friendly listing, as some have inquired. This is a covid-conscious, peaceful household, and I am a responsible neighbor. Have a great day.”
“It was a classy way to let people know, like, ‘Don’t even bother,’” Cordova said.
Cordova also ramped up her efforts to vet potential guests. If she were to get a booking request for the week of the inauguration, “I would Google them to see what their online presence is like,” she said. “Or I might say, ‘I know this is, like, a lot, but could I see your Facebook profile?’ And [I] could kind of see what their attitudes are there.”
Massa Gongbay-Brown, a 30-year-old government contractor, rents out part of the Hillcrest Heights, Md., home she shares with her husband. She took to asking potential guests three polite and (perhaps deceptively) simple questions before accepting their bookings: what brings them to town, how long they’ll be staying and whether they need any special accommodations.
In November, a guest who had booked Gongbay-Brown’s Airbnb for the inauguration canceled his reservation, messaging her that his plans had changed: “My candidate didn’t win. Best of luck.”
She didn’t think much of it at the time. But in hindsight, she’s glad she asked the guests who snapped up the resulting vacancy her three standard questions — if only because they revealed, to her relief, that the guests were a couple with a child. In that case, “It’s pretty clear you’re with the Biden train,” she told The Post.
Before Airbnb’s announcement that it was canceling reservations, collective efforts to discourage rentals were springing up. James Benson, 30, a nonprofit Salesforce consultant who lives in the city’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, started the #DontRentDC campaign on Nextdoor and later Twitter to encourage local short-term rental hosts to delist their properties over inauguration week. Over the weekend, Patrilie Hernandez, a 35-year-old community advocate in Northeast Washington, enlisted her partner’s help to start a MoveOn.org petition explicitly calling on Airbnb to “provide incentives for people to not rent out their properties in DC metro area.”
“I feel like a lot of the onus is put on the property owner, but this would be a great time for corporations to put their money where their mouth is in terms of supporting racial justice,” Hernandez said on Sunday, referring to Capitol rioters’ white-supremacy hand signs and Confederate flags. “We had all these corporations putting black squares on [their Instagram feeds] over the summer, having all these very public messages that they denounce white supremacy. Why aren’t they putting money [into] this?”
Airbnb’s Wednesday statement seems to acknowledge such sentiments. The company also specified that the measure is a response to “various local, state and federal officials asking people not to travel to Washington, D.C.” and reports on Tuesday that “armed militias and hate groups” were attempting to travel and disrupt the inauguration.
VRBO, another popular short-term rental service, said in a statement Tuesday that it has “a zero-tolerance policy regarding acts of harassment, violence or discrimination and we will remove any guests or hosts from our website who exhibit or promote such behavior in-stay or offline,” based on reports from “governments, the media or customers.”
While Airbnb’s new announcement is specific to the inauguration, hosts may want to keep the tactics they devised in mind for future protest weekends. One that Cordova discussed with friends, half-jokingly, was simply letting Trump supporters book the property but notifying them ahead of time that their rental payments would promptly be donated to Black Lives Matter.