Several hundred District residents packed the D.C. Council chambers on Wednesday to debate a plan to impose strict new limits on ways property owners in the nation’s capital can profit from Airbnb and other home-sharing businesses.
A bill introduced by council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) would make it illegal for District property owners to post multiple addresses for short-term rent. It would also drastically curtail the number of days that a homeowner could rent an entire property — from an unlimited period to as few as 15 days in a single year. The bill would not restrict those who rent out a basement apartment or rooms within their primary residence.
The proposed legislation has placed Washington in the middle of similar fights roiling major cities nationwide. Explosive growth in online home-sharing sites has raised a variety of issues, including tax collection and whether short-term rentals inappropriately turn homes into de facto hotels and party venues.
In the District, the fight has been distilled to a question of whether home-sharing is exacerbating the city’s affordable housing crisis, a debate that has prompted similar regulation in New York and San Francisco.
McDuffie, addressing the hundreds who turned out Wednesday, said he doesn’t want to take away income from residents but rather root out those using Airbnb to convert properties into full-time rentals and in the process removing units from the market that might otherwise house low-income residents.
“This unregulated business has had great impact on safety and affordability,” McDuffie said. “The city lacks a coherent scheme that allows bad actors to take units off the market.”
Those who violate the proposed rules could be fined up to $1,000 for the first instance and up to $7,000 for subsequent violations.
The hearing came a day after D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine announced a lawsuit accusing a California company of turning units in four District apartment buildings into illegal short-term rentals on Airbnb, including two in rent-controlled buildings.
Claire Zippel, an analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which advocates for greater funding for the poor, said Airbnb listings show that the problem is citywide and much larger than the four buildings identified in the lawsuit.
About 2,000 of Airbnb’s 5,000 rentals listed in the District are full homes or apartments, indicating the property owners may not live at the addresses. “A significant problem,” Zippel said, considering that about 1,000 District families are in homeless shelters and overflow motel rooms.
Valerie Ervin of the Working Families Party, which organized scores of people to testify in favor of the bill, said Airbnb and other home-sharing sites are making it more lucrative for property owners to kick out low-rent tenants and conduct short-term rentals in Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and other neighborhoods.
“Make no mistake — when not regulated, sites like Airbnb are tools for gentrification,” Ervin said.
But Airbnb, backed by one of the city’s leading proponents of affordable housing, pushed back on that assertion.
The company released a study showing that its full-home rentals account for 2 percent of all housing units in the District and that 60 percent of those listings are rented part time for fewer than 90 days per year.
In an interview, Stephen Glaude, executive director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development, which partnered on the study, said there is potential for home-sharing to impact affordable housing prices, but at this time, “it’s not happening.”
Representatives of the hotel industry testified in favor of the bill, saying that Airbnb enjoys unfair advantages, including voluntary reporting of how much tax it owes, while hosts do not have to comply with laws required of hotels.
Hours of testimony by homeowners and questioning by council members also centered on whether the bill would infringe on the property rights of District residents.
Marc Gersen, a college student, said taking away the income he makes from Airbnb when he is on leave from school would severely affect his personal finances. He rattled off a list of others in similar circumstances.
“Students and teachers, federal workers who get five weeks of vacation, a friend of mine is an IT consultant who travels every Monday through Thursday,” he said. “In D.C., people travel a lot, and this bill will restrict every District resident who may be away for more than 15 days.”
District residents who have two homes said it would also unfairly target them.
Amy Rothberg, who owns a home in Georgetown, recounted how her business fell apart and her savings dried up during the economic downturn a decade ago. She moved out of her home and into a rental unit, renting out her home as a vacation property to earn more than half her income.
“My business is not the cause of the problem, nor does it contribute to the problem,” Rothberg said. “I’m a 66-year-old woman . . . and I’m caught up in this area that you’re not allowed to have a separate residence.”
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said that issue has been frequently raised by her constituents. “Where do we draw lines . . . for an individual owner monetizing a personal asset?” she asked. “The question I’ve repeatedly gotten is ‘What about the starter home they bought and want to be able to keep as an investment for their family?’ ”
Under McDuffie’s bill, such homeowners would fall into the commercial category and not be allowed to rent for more than 15 days a year.
Will Burns, Airbnb’s director of public policy, testified that the company would support more-lenient rules, limiting property owners to three listings at one time and 180 days of rent per unit per year.
McDuffie repeatedly was at odds with residents about the need for stricter limits, at one point telling Lisa Shaw, who owns a four-unit apartment building in Southeast, that she was taking away three potential homes by renting the other units on Airbnb.
Shaw said she was sick of dealing with tenants on government vouchers and others who didn’t pay their rent.
“It’s my property,” she said. “It’s my right.”