But Linton and other property owners east of the Anacostia River are worried about pending legislation that would place some of the most restrictive regulations in the country on home sharing in the District and affect an income stream on which they rely.
Wards 7 and 8 have more than 550 hosts combined, and they earn an average of $7,100 annually, according to Airbnb. Those interviewed said the extra money helps bolster their savings, pay their property taxes and support their children.
But critics say Airbnb has exacerbated the city’s affordable housing crisis by removing some rental housing from the market. And they back pending legislation, which received preliminary approval from the D.C. Council this month, that would prevent owners from renting out second homes on a short-term basis and limit homeowners to renting out primary residences for a maximum of 90 days in a calendar year when the homeowner is absent.
After postponing final action on the bill, the council plans a vote on Nov. 13, with the regulations going into effect Oct. 1, 2019. The bill has strong support from affordable housing advocates and the city’s hoteliers, who have grown increasingly worried about competition from short-term rentals.
In interviews with The Washington Post, multiple hosts east of the river pointed out that while the District’s 132 hotels are largely concentrated in more affluent, tourist-heavy neighborhoods, none exist in Wards 7 and 8. They say renting their homes on Airbnb and other sites means they are bringing tourists — and their money — into regions that have largely failed to benefit from the District’s booming tourism industry.
About 29,300 guests rented homes in Wards 7 and 8 between June 1, 2017, and May 31, 2018, a 65 percent increase over the previous 12 months, according to Airbnb. The company released a report highlighting how the proposed regulations would impact Wards 7 and 8, where more than 95 percent of residents are black or Latino.
Lifton has been renting a private floor of her Deanwood home for about the past year. She lives in Maryland, and daughter and her daughter’s roommate, both students, are the home’s primary residents.
Because Lifton doesn’t live in the house, the proposed regulations would force her to pull her listing off Airbnb, eliminating the $1,100 in monthly income she had been using to pay for maintenance and property taxes.
Lifton’s history with long-term tenants made listing the property on Airbnb more appealing, she said. In the past, she’s had to evict tenants who failed to pay rent, losing thousands of dollars in the process, and she said she was forced to pay more than $30,000 for renovations after a tenant left the home in disrepair.
To satisfy the proposed regulations, Lifton could add her 26-year-old daughter to the deed. But that gives her pause, she said, given her daughter’s age.
“We have to really think about how to do this because we can’t take the chance of not having the Airbnb as an option,” she said. “Because we would not go back to renting long-term tenants in that property.”
Though short-term rentals have operated in the District for nearly a decade, the recent popularity of Airbnb and debate over whether to regulate it revealed a fact that surprised many lawmakers as well as property owners: The vast majority of home-sharing arrangements are technically in violation of current zoning laws. City regulations, largely unenforced, prohibit rentals of fewer than 30 days in areas zoned for residential use, unless the host has a bed-and-breakfast or another appropriate business license.
That technicality is a major reason the council has delayed final action on the bill. The proposed legislation requires home-sharing hosts to get a license from the city, and Jeffrey DeWitt, the city’s chief financial officer, told the council that as many as 90 percent of short-term renters will be unable to acquire a license because the practice would be considered illegal under the current law. That would effectively destroy the city’s short-term rental market and cost the city more than $96 million over the next four years in lost tax revenue that is now collected from home-sharing rentals.
In addition to a license, short-term hosts would also be required to have liability insurance of at least $500,000, and a 24-hour emergency telephone number.
The D.C. Council is asking the zoning commission to amend the rules to allow short-term rentals to operate legally. The commission is holding a rare emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the request.
In the meantime, council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said property owners in his ward are worried and confused.
Marrio Pearson, 46, is among them. Pearson has been renting out his basement in Ward 8 on Airbnb for nearly two years, earning $11,000 annually that he said he has been setting aside for his mortgage payments, taxes and savings accounts. The uncertainty around the bill has him worried that he may “run afoul” of the city if he continues renting on Airbnb. Fines for noncompliance range up to $6,000.
A cybersecurity engineer, Pearson said his life won’t necessarily be harder without the Airbnb income. If he’s unable to continue renting, he said that he will turn his basement into a man cave. Still, the proposed law could have a damaging ripple effect east of the Anacostia River, he said.
“It’s going to take money out of the pocket of the person I hire to clean the basement, or people I recommend for Uber trips, or the local restaurants I tell people to get food from,” he said.
Still, others said they welcome regulation. Jim Lytle, 63, said he has no sympathy for people who will be barred from renting their second home, for example, because they probably earn far more than the average D.C. resident anyway. Lytle, an auditor for the Defense Department, rents a spare room in his Ward 8 home but says he uses Airbnb infrequently. In the past year, he’s had fewer than 10 guests.
“I want that ordinance to go through. It’s not even as tough as I think it should’ve been,” he said. “It’s wrong for people to take housing out of the market where people need homes and turn it into basically only for the tourists.”
It is unclear what impact short-term rentals have on housing in the District. Fewer than 10,000 units are rented short term, a small fraction of the more than 300,000 total housing units in the city.
Affordable housing advocate Stephen Glaude, executive director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, said that based on a study the coalition requested from Airbnb, short-term rentals “do not have a major impact on the housing stock” in the District. But Glaude said that short-term rentals have contributed to rising housing prices in other cities and that the District should be wary.
Darnell Eaton, 35, bought a second home less than a year ago for the sole purpose of renting it out on Airbnb. Eaton said he will probably sell his Ward 8 property before the proposal takes effect, even though he may be forced to pay an unexpected short-term capital gains tax on the investment.
A government employee and aspiring actor, Eaton said he was planning to use the income generated from his Airbnb rental to help pay down his mortgage and put money aside so that he would be able to quit his government job and pursue his acting dream. He lamented the uncertainty the government has suddenly injected into his life.
“These laws that are being put into place, they’re kind of changing the plans. I have to now think of different ways to make passive income to kind of support my dreams,” he said. “I should be able to dictate [how I use my home], and not the state.”