It might start to get a lot more difficult to rent out your home on Airbnb soon, if a couple of bills proposed this week make it through the D.C. Council.
The District has not seen much in the way of fighting over regulation of housing in the so-called sharing economy since Airbnb agreed to collect and remit the full “tourist tax” levied on short-term rentals. But fights have continued in cities across the country, as community groups, lawmakers and hospitality interests seek to prevent property owners from using the service to set up what are functionally hotels without the regulation.
One bill, backed by a large hotel workers union, would ban the rental of whole units without the owner or occupant being present, and prevent hosts from renting out more than one unit at a time. It would also create a special enforcement division within the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to conduct inspections, and empower third parties — such as neighborhood groups or housing affordability advocates — to sue for violations.
For Unite-Here Local 25, which represents 6,500 hotel workers in the D.C. area, Airbnb poses a threat to hotels’ profitability — and therefore jobs. But the local’s leader, John Boardman, said the bill is also aimed at stopping people from cannibalizing apartments that might otherwise be occupied by long-term tenants.
“Are we going to allow Airbnb to subtract large numbers of housing units from an already waning housing stock?” Boardman said. “Are we going to allow that extraction to drive rents already higher than they are now?”
A Unite-Here consultant found 3,500 Airbnb listings in the District as of Aug. 1, 66 percent of which were whole-unit rentals (which would be illegal, under the union-backed bill). The group also found that about 40 percent of the listings belonged to hosts who had more than one unit on Airbnb — the most active user was advertising 79 of them.
According to the Census Bureau, there were 306,174 housing units in the District in 2014, so Airbnb probably is not having a meaningful effect on prices. But that could change quickly, housing advocates worry.
“What we don’t want to do is go to sleep and wake up one day and there are 15,000” Airbnb listings, said Steve Glaude, director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development. Glaude has yet to take a position on the union’s bill.
Airbnb argues that among the site’s whole-unit listings in the District, 78 percent are rented for fewer than 90 days a year, which probably means they serve a long-term occupant.
“Legislation that would cost the District millions in tax revenue annually and make it harder for middle-class families to pay the bills won’t help anyone except the big hotels,” Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas said. “We look forward to working with everyone on fair rules for home sharing in the District.”
The big hotels in the District, which have a combined 27,698 rooms, have offered their own draft legislation. Their measure would limit the number of units that one host could rent at a time to five, but it would allow for whole-unit listings and does not contain many of the enforcement measures of the bill pushed by Unite-Here.
Solomon Keene, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, said the draft aims to prevent entrepreneurs from using Airbnb to set up a lightly regulated system of distributed hotel rooms — not to drive Airbnb out of the market.
“Frankly, technology got out in front of regulation, and what we’re trying to do is bring them back in line,” Keene said. “Our bill doesn’t even address those who are truly engaged in the sharing economy in a pure way. What we are seeking to better regulate is people who are buying dwellings to engage in the platform.”
The District already requires people renting out their dwellings for short periods of time to obtain a business license, which varies based on how many guests will be staying and whether the permanent occupant will be present. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs spokesman Matt Orlins said the agency has investigated several units in response to complaints and “initiated enforcement actions where appropriate.”
But the city government has long lacked adequate resources to fully enforce rules already on the books, said Kate Mereand-Sinha, who until recently served as a program analyst at the DCRA’s Office of Data and Innovation. Having reviewed the legislative proposals, she said that both appear to best serve the hotel industry and its workers, rather than D.C. residents overall.
“A short-term rental law is not inappropriate, but it appears that other interests weave into these bills that crowd out the public interest,” Mereand-Sinha said. Housing “affordability appears to be an excuse for market protection and regulatory expansion, without providing any actual solutions toward the affordability crisis.”
Regulation of short-term rentals is rapidly evolving in several cities, some of which have found that earlier laws did not work so well. For example, Airbnb hosts in San Francisco have complained that a new registration system is cumbersome, and few have signed up. Santa Monica, Calif., has instituted some of the strictest regulations, banning rentals for fewer than 30 days.