Washington could be the next big battleground for Airbnb, if a local hotel workers union has its way.
Representatives of Local 25 have been lobbying the D.C. Council in recent weeks to push forward a bill under consideration that would impose strict regulations on the growing home-sharing company, which they accuse of blurring the line between the housing market and the hotel industry.
The bill would bar hosts from renting out multiple units at a time and would require them to obtain licenses and submit to city inspections.
The council has not scheduled a hearing on the bill, and it is unclear how popular it is. Only one council member, Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), has signed on. But Airbnb also appears to be gearing up for a battle.
The company this week released to The Washington Post new data on its rental activity and user profiles for the District.
The data, which shows that the average Airbnb host in the District brings in $5,100 a year through the business, is meant to counter the claims of some critics that Airbnb rentals amount to unregulated mini-hotels and cut into affordable housing stock.
Many hosts, in fact, “earn below median income,” the company said. Home-sharing, it said, is different from the hotel industry — it is a service built “of the people, by the people and for the people,” Airbnb asserts.
The District is not the first place to see that claim challenged.
Airbnb recently spent $8 million to defeat a legislative measure in San Francisco that would have limited rentals to 75 days a year and subjected Airbnb rentals to hotel taxes and city codes.
The bill before the D.C. Council is even stricter.
If passed, the “Short-term Rental Regulation and Housing Protection Amendment Act of 2015” would require hosts to be present throughout the term of any rental, and hosts would be limited to renting one unit at a time. The bill also would create a special division within the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that would monitor and inspect the city’s short-term rental sites. And it would allow neighbors, community groups and others to sue such hosts over violations.
The idea is to regulate the company just as hotels are regulated, said John Boardman, the head of the hotel workers union, which has accused the company of cutting unfairly into the local hotel business by operating without the standard model of taxes and regulations.
“It’s an illegal business model. This is just the same as an old rental business that operated on 3-by-5 cards out of a rental office. That’s all they are,” Boardman said. “This is not some magical high-tech thing that is creating some vast new market that didn’t exist.”
The union hopes to see the council hold a hearing on the new regulatory bill by the end of January. But it remains unclear how much support it will get in the council.
Orange, the legislation’s only sponsor, declined to comment on it.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), whose ward includes the Capitol Hill neighborhood and who sits on the committee that would hold the hearing, said he would have trouble supporting the bill as it stands.
“If there was ever a bill that called for nuance, this is one of them,” Allen said. “That’s because there are people who use Airbnb, and it’s a huge benefit to their households. And then we also have examples where Airbnb rentals have a negative impact on a neighborhood.”
Airbnb, which started paying hotel taxes to the District several months ago, counters that the home-sharing network allows middle-class residents to supplement their regular incomes, while also attracting a niche market of tourists who might not otherwise visit the city or stay as long, the company claims.
About 142,000 people stayed in Airbnb rentals while visiting the District over the past year, contributing more than $76 million to the local economy, according to Airbnb.
Ninety-two percent of those visitors said that they chose Airbnb so they could “live like a local,” and 1 in 3 visitors would not have come or stayed as long if Airbnb hadn’t been an option, the company said.
The argument is that Airbnb fills a gap that the traditional hotel industry can’t. Rentals often provide amenities, such as kitchens and washing machines, that hotels do not. And rentals allow guests to be part of a “community.”
“Airbnb grows the tourism pie in Washington, D.C., attracting guests who otherwise might not have been able to come or stay as long,” the company’s data shows.
Alan Weintraut, a local high school teacher and Airbnb host, estimates that about 40 percent of the people who rent his recently renovated basement apartment are Australian tourists on a budget.
“We get people coming to the city for five or six days, whereas several years ago without Airbnb, they might have stayed only a few nights,” he said.
But Weintraut, who said he renovated the basement with the intent of turning it into an Airbnb unit — as opposed to a long-term rental — also speaks to one of Airbnb’s chief criticisms, particularly in such cities as Washington, New York and San Francisco, where the cost of living is skyrocketing.
In San Francisco, critics accused the company of contributing to the loss of badly needed affordable housing by encouraging property owners to forgo long-term rentals in favor of potentially more lucrative vacation rentals through Airbnb.
In some cases, that may be true.
A quick glance at the District’s Airbnb offerings shows that some hosts are renting out multiple properties at once. A host named “Lauren,” for example, offers a “Sweet DC Themed Apartment in Dupont” for $105 a night, as well as a studio in Dupont Circle for $90 a night.
And one D.C. graduate student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid getting into trouble with his landlord, said that he uses Airbnb to rent out a Cleveland Park apartment that he is renting from someone else — while he rents a second apartment for himself.
Paradoxically, the student said that he started renting out the apartment, which had been his primary residence, full time in order to cover the rising cost of being a student. “If it wasn’t for Airbnb, I’d probably have to take more student loans,” he said.
Airbnb insists that while such secondary rental units exist, they are not the norm.
According to a recent company survey of 3,800 hosts nationwide, about 80 percent of Airbnb hosts rent out their primary residence — that is, the home they live in, said Christopher Nulty, an Airbnb spokesman, and not one that would otherwise be available to long-term tenants.
Although the company says it has no specific data on primary-residence rentals in the District, it says that more than 70 percent of D.C. hosts are renting out their units for fewer than 60 days a year — a length of time consistent with seasonal or business travel, and not a full-time rental operation.
Earlier this year, D.C.’s attorney general shut down one Airbnb rental site in Dupont Circle after host Douglas Jeffries, who advertised the property as the “Celebrity House Hunter Mansion,” drew repeated noise and nuisance complaints after renting out the site for loud parties and concerts.
Airbnb has acknowledged that some of its users have violated the company’s mission of home sharing. In a new “community compact” released this month, the company promised to build an “open and transparent community,” release annual home-sharing data and ensure the collection of hotel and tourist taxes from its rentals.
Lydia DePillis contributed to this report.