The debate over how to regulate the booming short-term-rental market found new life in the Virginia General Assembly this week under a bill that seeks to override how the state’s largest jurisdiction chose to handle the issue.
Legislation on its way to the Senate floor would triple the amount of time homeowners in Fairfax County are allowed to take in tenants under Airbnb and similar websites, replacing a 60-day annual cap approved by the county last year with a 180-day limit.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) was approved by the Senate’s Local Government Committee on Tuesday and is scheduled to be heard in the full Senate on Friday.
It would help Fairfax homeowners who rely on short-term rentals for income, said proponents, who described the 60-day limit as the most stringent restriction governing the short-term-rental industry approved in Virginia so far.
“I cannot work a regular job,” said Laura Niswander, an Alexandria-area resident who cares for two children with special needs, told the committee Tuesday. “I want to be able to support myself.”
But Fairfax County’s elected officials say the bill would violate a 2017 state law that gave local jurisdictions authority to deal with the largely unregulated short-term-rental market however they see fit.
After the committee voted 9 to 4 to move the bill to the Senate floor, Fairfax officials promised to defeat it.
The county spent more than a year holding public meetings and surveying residents before it adopted its zoning-ordinance amendment over the summer, county Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova (D) said Wednesday.
The amendment also limits the number of short-term-rental occupants to six adults, requires that parking be available, imposes a $200 fee for a two-year permit and requires homeowners to pay local transient-occupancy taxes equal to 6 percent of what they earn on their contract.
“We provided a considerable amount of time before we actually implemented the new ordinance so we could work with short-term-rental providers, so we can make sure that it was easy for them to come into compliance and that they had all the time they needed,” Bulova said. “This bill is just so unfair.”
Local governments across the country are grappling with how to regulate short-term rentals, leading to debates over property rights and the gentrifying effect rentals have on some neighborhoods.
Nearby Arlington County limits short-term rentals to 180 days per year, while Alexandria’s ordinance requires only that companies offering such rentals collect local taxes for the service.
The D.C. Council passed a bill last year that would prevent property owners from renting out second homes on a short-term basis, bar them from renting spare rooms or basements for more than 90 days a year and require short-term-rental companies to share information about tenants.
Earlier this month, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) returned the bill to the council unsigned and without a veto, saying it was unlikely to survive a court challenge because it is similar to a New York City law that was struck down in federal court.
Fairfax’s approach is already facing a legal challenge.
A Circuit Court lawsuit filed in the fall by a group of homeowners that includes Niswander argues that the county had no right under its zoning ordinance to restrict them from “home sharing.”
Ebbin said he introduced his legislation in hopes of forging a compromise by aligning Fairfax’s restrictions with Arlington’s. “I’m hoping Fairfax will come to the table so we can make a more reasonable framework for people who want to have an income to be able to pay their mortgages,” he said.
At Tuesday’s committee hearing, several lawmakers sympathized with the homeowners seeking to overturn the 60-day limit.
Sen. Jeremy S. McPike (D-Prince William) said the county’s approach is “something like a requirement for an Uber driver to only drive five days out of the year.”
While he supported Ebbin’s bill, McPike also expressed concern that it would open the door for challenges to short-term-rental ordinances passed in other jurisdictions.
“We’re going to get into this quagmire year after year after year,” McPike said.
Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), who voted against the bill, said allowing it to pass would undermine the principle of local rule in Virginia.
“When you give local control to local government, you need to follow through with that and respect the decision that they make, whether you agree with them or not,” he said. “Local control is local control. When we give it, we shouldn’t take it back.”