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Amy is fed up with her misery-inducing neighbors. Except her name isn’t really Amy, and her neighbors rarely stay long. “Airbnb-holes, that’s what I call them now,” she says.
Amy is a tenant at 1301 Thomas Circle, a luxury building on M Street NW. Rents there currently start at more than $2,500 a month for a one bedroom and rise to several thousand dollars a month for coveted three-bedrooms. Garage parking comes at an extra fee.
For regular leaseholders like Amy, steep rents yield various amenities, including modern appliances, high ceilings, large windows, a rooftop swimming pool, a 24-hour fitness center, and a game room. The pet-friendly building attracts young tenants and is located within walking distance of downtown and thriving nightlife.
But some of Amy’s neighbors pay more than she does, on a daily basis, for basically the same benefits. She says so many people cycle in and out of a few units on her floor every week that it’s difficult to keep track of who actually lives there. Recently, keyless-entry systems were installed on their front doors. Amy often sees strangers with luggage roaming the building.
Some of the guests appear to be foreigners, not speaking much English. Others are families or groups who throw parties, crowd the building’s common areas, and make residents feel unsafe. “Sometimes it’s a bunch of guys staring at me as I go into my apartment,” says Amy. “One time I opened the door to my apartment, and there was a half-smoked cigarette on the floor outside.”
Amy has lived at the Logan Circle property for more than a year. Citing fear of reprisal from her landlord, Colorado-based real estate investment trust UDR, she requested anonymity to openly discuss the activity that’s been going on since she moved there and spiked last spring and summer. She says it shows no signs of ending and she’s ready to leave.
According to both Amy and another tenant speaking on background for the same reasons, as well as the property’s Yelp! page, several online listings, and emails from two UDR employees obtained by City Paper, somewhere between 10 and 30 apartments in the building are being used for short-term rentals.
This has led to security risks, noise, and slow service from building staff, tenants say.
“Originally, when we moved in, they said, ‘Oh, we have a small amount of corporate housing in the building, people are staying for business purposes,’” recalls a male renter who’s resided at 1301 Thomas Circle for about a year. “It wasn’t really explained to us that this was a vacation tourism, hotel-type operation. Our lobby, on any given Saturday or Sunday, looks like a hotel.”
In the past, that’s resulted in long-term tenants having to wait for 15 or 20 minutes just to pick up packages while front desk staff attend to short-term visitors. Tenants add that the building’s staff frequently seem more solicitous to the guests than to them.
Those guests allegedly make excessive noise, too. “For the past 3 months I have lay awake 3-4 nights per week due to blasting music and parties going on in the apartments around me,” Yelp! reviewer Aisling B. wrote last July. “I have made so many complaints to management and leasing and no one has ever even responded to me aside from a late night security man who tries to help at 3am when I call to ask him to do something about the noise.”
Amy says she has also complained about the situation in formal surveys, but received no reply to her concerns. “We pay so much in rent already,” she says. “I feel like one of the things we’re paying for is safety—and luxury or whatever—and it’s just not worth it.”
Building managers and UDR’s corporate office did not respond to requests for comment. The company owns 26 properties in the D.C. area, including five in the District, per UDR’s website.
Another one of its D.C. buildings nearby, Andover House, has short-term rentals too, a listing on Stay Alfred, a Washington (state)-based startup that provides furnished apartments, shows. Founded in 2011, Stay Alfred rents apartments and buildings in U.S. downtown areas, offering cleaning, booking, and customer service to standardize stays, according to tech site GeekWire.
In the case of 1301 Thomas Circle, the landlord enters into lease agreements with Stay Alfred, which in turn rents out certain apartments, emails from UDR staffers suggest. UDR itself doesn’t advertise on short-term rental sites, but corporate clients with which it contracts do.
City Paper found several listings for apartments in the building on Stay Alfred, Airbnb (II, III), and VRBO (II, III). Stays for dates in January ranged in price from $150 a night to $1,150 a night, depending on the size of the unit and not including taxes and fees. Per an Airbnb listing, one weeklong stay in a three-bedroom would cost about $10,000 in total; a Stay Alfred listing touts the building’s “prestigious address” and it being in one of D.C.’s “most effervescent neighborhoods.”
This is something that vexes the tenants, who aren’t allowed to sublease or use their units for short-term rentals under their own lease agreements with UDR. “If we can’t do it, why can they do it?” says Amy, who adds that short-term rentals may be inflating overall rents in the building.
The D.C. Council is still weighing legislation proposed last January by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie that would require hosts to register short-term rental listings with the District. It would also restrict both the number and length of bookings made through Airbnb and its ilk.
McDuffie says the bill would curb abuses by commercial enterprises that effectively operate unlicensed hotels, yet would preserve homeowners’ ability to generate income. Short-term rental companies have cast the proposal as draconian, harmful, and misguided.
Housing activists have uncovered a few rent-controlled buildings in D.C. being used for short-term rentals, and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued California firm Ginosi for illegal ones. The parties partially settled the case in the fall, freeing up dozens of units to long-term city residents.
1301 Thomas Circle is not a rent-controlled building, and it’s unclear whether the business activity occurring there is unlawful. Regulators can penalize individuals and companies for unlicensed rental activity, but, because enforcement is driven by complaints, it’s inconsistent.
A spokesman for the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees short-term rental licensing and would be charged with additional responsibilities under McDuffie’s bill, confirmed that a division within the agency “was assigned to this matter last week and an investigation is pending.”
In the meantime, tenants plagued by random visitors await intervention, or for their leases to run out.
“We’ve had friends who have lived in this building, and they all have the same story,” the male tenant says. “We just don’t want people to experience the pain and agony we’ve experienced.”