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Airbnb says D.C. bill would restrict it more than anywhere except New York and San Francisco

The Airbnb logo at an event in Tokyo. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Airbnb lashed out at a proposed bill to curtail short-term D.C. rentals Monday, saying it would cost property owners tens of millions of dollars in lost income and give Washington the most restrictive legislation of any major U.S. city except New York and San Francisco.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), whose Capitol Hill district includes large numbers of Airbnb hosts, said he may seek to soften the bill when it comes up for an initial vote Tuesday.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Monday she is also concerned that the legislation could be too restrictive, possibly setting up a clash with council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), a sponsor of the bill.

The legislation, if approved, would represent a victory for the hotel industry, community groups and other Airbnb critics. They have mounted a campaign, including television ads, arguing that the growth of short-term rentals is disrupting neighborhoods and aggravating a shortage of affordable rental housing.

Airbnb and similar companies have countered with their own media effort saying that the hotel industry and its unions are trying to eliminate competition. There are about 9,000 short-term rentals operating in the District, which “directly compete” with more than 31,000 hotel rooms, according to a council report.

Airbnb becomes flash point in the District’s hot debate over gentrification.

The legislation would ban property owners from using Airbnb and similar companies to rent second homes on a short-term basis. Airbnb said that among large U.S. cities, similar prohibitions exist only in New York and San Francisco. Both cities, like the District, are grappling with a housing crisis.

The bill also would limit homeowners to renting out their primary residence to 90 days in a calendar year when the host is absent. There would be no limit on short-term rentals of space in one’s residence — such as a spare bedroom or basement — when the host is present.

Airbnb held a media briefing to urge that the city adopt a more relaxed measure, such as allowing short-term rentals of at least one property in addition to a primary residence. It also called for no ceiling on the number of nights that a primary residence could be rented, including when the owner is absent.

“We do want to regulate, but we certainly don’t want to strangulate,” said Chris Lehane, ­Airbnb’s global head of public policy.

Allen said many of his constituents are diplomatic or military personnel who are frequently away from the District and would like to rent their residences on a short-term basis. He said he believed other council members shared his view, but it wasn’t clear how many.

Bowser’s office suggested she sided with Airbnb.

“The sharing economy is here to stay, and we want Washingtonians to have every opportunity to benefit from these industries,” spokeswoman LaToya Foster said in an email. “The Mayor wants to ensure that any regulations put in place are about building a more equitable and inclusive DC — not about locking Washingtonians out of emerging and profitable markets.”

Airbnb, the largest and best-known short-term rental company, said its hosts in the District last year earned a total of $83.8 million in supplemental income.

It released a report saying new restrictions would harm neighborhoods with large minority populations. It noted there are no hotels east of the Anacostia River — which is predominantly African American — whereas Airbnb has 300 hosts.

“Home sharing is economically benefiting D.C. communities that the big hotels have abandoned,” the report said.

HomeAway, a vacation rental company, called the policy proposal “draconian.”

Mendelson defended the bill Monday, saying the council has received many complaints that short-term rentals were a nuisance — some people were using them to host noisy parties, for example.

“What we’re trying to deal with are the adverse consequences from having transient guest traffic in our residential neighborhoods,” Mendelson said. “We have a significant affordable-housing crisis in this city, and to the extent that we’re losing units that could be rented out to tenants, losing them to short-term transient rentals actually hurts us.”

Graylin Presbury, president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, called the bill “a common-sense ordinance to limit short-term rentals to true home sharing.”

“Commercial Airbnb investors are currently taking away available housing that is affordable, in addition to increasing rent, which hurts city residents and is wrong,” Presbury said.

The activists and Airbnb have issued competing analyses about how short-term rentals affect the availability of housing.

Airbnb Watch recently released a study saying that based on recent trends, the legislation would mean more than 3,500 housing units would “shift back to long-term rental after the ordinance stops investor-driven ‘cornering’ of the residential market.”

Airbnb, meanwhile, has said that short-term rentals have a minimal impact on the city’s total housing stock.

Airbnb said 670 of its 6,500 listings are rented for more than 180 days a year, and it assumes those are all second homes — as opposed to primary residences — that would be affected by the legislation. That’s less than ­one-quarter of 1 percent of the city’s total of about 300,000 units.

“We’re not having an impact on housing,” Lehane said.

Mendelson said that the city’s housing-production trust fund has been creating or preserving about 1,000 units a year, so recovering 670 units would be significant. Affordable-housing activists have noted that the District needs to add tens of thousands of units, so the city’s current efforts are marginal.