Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Home-sharing giant Airbnb is taking aim at a bill proposed by the D.C. Council last week that would limit the length and number of rental bookings made through the company’s platform and those of its peers like VRBO. The bill’s proponents, though, say it represents an effort to curb abuses of these platforms and preserve affordable housing in the District.

Last Tuesday, Ward 5 D.C. Councilmember and business committee chair Kenyan McDuffie introduced new legislation to establish a regulatory framework for local home-sharing. As drafted, the bill would require hosts to obtain a separate business license for short-term rentals through the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Hosts would be restricted to renting out their permanent homes, and to only one listing in that residence—whether a bedroom, a basement, or the entire property. The bill includes record-keeping requirements for both platforms and hosts.

The legislation would establish penalties ranging from $1,000 to $7,000 depending on how many times a host is found to be out of compliance. But it exempts certain vacation stays such that a host need not be on-site during a full-property booking for a maximum of 15 days per year. 

Backers of the bill, including organizations D.C. Jobs With Justice and the Working Families Party, say the intent is to prohibit owners from operating de facto unlicensed hotels, thereby draining D.C.’s dwindling stock of long-term affordable housing. They point to examples like a 21-unit rent-controlled building in Columbia Heights that is alleged to have run as an illegal hotel for months. The building was outed in a “sting operation” coordinated among advocacy groups as well as Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in December. 

Airbnb is quick to point out that its platform brings new visitors and economic activity to neighborhoods outside the District’s downtown core, where traditional hotels are lacking. Airbnb takes issue with the bill’s 15-day vacation-stay cap, describing it and the proposed fines as severe. It also notes it’s raised over $12 million in D.C. taxes since 2015.

“Blaming Airbnb and and short-term rentals for affordable housing challenges, the data just really don’t bear that out,” says Will Burns, the company’s regional public policy director. “If you’re going to have tougher regulations, they should be on commercial operators who are renting out multiple units on the platform … but if I’m renting out my home, there should be broad deference to me being able to do that.”

Airbnb identified hosts in the District who said the bill would harm their bottom lines and isn’t tailored enough to address bad commercial actors. The hosts tout the benefits of the platform, saying the extra income they earn through short-term rentals lets them stay in D.C. and cover their expenses. Furthermore, some philosophically object to the government regulating how they are able to use private property. If the District is going to come up with a regulatory scheme for home-sharing, they explain, it ought to be simple to navigate and easy to use.

In a statement, McDuffie says the bill “does not ban legitimate home-sharing.” Instead, it “will provide clarity for residents who want to earn extra income, while also providing District agencies the tools to enforce regulations around health, safety, and quality of life issues,” he says. A public hearing has not yet been scheduled on the legislation and McDuffie is its only sponsor so far. A fiscal impact statement on how the bill would impact the city’s revenue from taxes levied on home-sharing activity also hasn’t been completed.

As for affordable housing, a spokesman for McDuffie notes that half the money from penalties in the legislation would go toward the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Nadeau, who led the December “sting operation” in Columbia Heights, says she hasn’t reviewed McDuffie’s bill yet. But she “believes we need to strike a balance between allowing residents to make a little extra renting a spare bedroom, and stopping commercial enterprises undermining our affordable housing.” In addition, the Post‘s editorial board argued earlier this week that the current legislation is “too restrictive.”

McDuffie’s isn’t the first proposal seeking to regulate home-sharing in the District. Last year, two bills that former At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange had introduced and that hotel-industry groups had supported lapsed. Across the Potomac River, Arlington County recently approved regulations on home-sharing platforms that reduced the number of days a host may rent their primary home to a short-term renter to a generous 185 days per year.

Airbnb has praised the new laws in Arlington while calling McDuffie’s bill “unworkable.” In a report out this week, the company states that in 2016, Airbnb bookings “generated more than $209 million in economic activity” across the District, which was over 72 percent more than they had generated in 2015. Almost 300,000 guests visited D.C. using Airbnb as well. 

How much the bill changes as it advances remains to be seen, but Airbnb says it’s willing to work with the District to reach a compromise, and McDuffie says he welcomes feedback.