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A rent-controlled apartment building in Columbia Heights could have offered affordable housing but instead has consistently been used for short-term rentals through Airbnb, advocates who conducted an investigation allege.
The building, at 3504 13th St. NW, came to the attention of the Latino Economic Development Center last year, when an LEDC organizer visited. A Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act notice had been triggered after a stake in the building’s ownership went up for sale, and the organizer was knocking on doors to alert residents of their rights under that law. But, says LEDC’s Rob Wohl, no one the organizer encountered was a longterm tenant and some people residing at the building mentioned that they had rented their rooms on VRBO, a competitor of Airbnb.
After looking into it further, advocates say they discovered that the building’s owners did not have the basic business license from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs required to conduct commercial activity, including any rental activity, at their property. Of 21 units, only one had officially been listed as occupied last year. The latest rent-control filing with the Department of Housing and Community Development was a decade ago.
“In this case, we have a property owner who has not tried to disguise the fact that he owns the property and is doing short-term rentals,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who joined LEDC, the Working Families Party, and D.C. Jobs With Justice at a press conference outside the building today. “The point of this exercise is that at least one property owner we know of is illegally operating a hotel in the District, which undermines our affordable housing stock. Not to single out Airbnb per se, but there are some bad actors utilizing these products.”
An Airbnb listing for a two-bedroom apartment inside the building was no longer available online as of Thursday morning, though City Paper viewed it yesterday and was provided screenshots of what it had looked like. Taken down as well was the profile page of hosts “Elizabeth and Jarek,” who had advertised other listings at 3222 13th St. NW on the platform and VRBO. Activists linked two buildings, in Dupont Circle and Petworth, to the hosts as well.
As part of advocates’ “sting operation” into the building at 3504 13th St. NW, Valerie Ervins, a senior adviser for WFP, booked the two-bedroom apartment, which had a requirement for a three-night stay, for this week. The total cost came out to $1,161, at $270 per night for the space on top of a $100 cleaning fee, a $104 guest service fee, and $147 in taxes. “I actually paid for the rental what most people pay in that neighborhood for an entire month,” Ervins says. She adds that the hosts “wanted a ton of information” about where she was coming from, texting and emailing her. “I felt like I was applying for a credit card,” she notes. Ervins did not stay overnight in the apartment.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Jarek Mika said he manages the building at 3504 13th St. NW and lives in a unit there. He said the property’s ownership changed to a partnership structure this year, and about eight of the units are now vacant. These are being painted and repaired to go on the market in February, Mika explained. He said there are “plenty of other people living there,” mostly “longterm residents” who own condo units and may occasionally rent them out on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO. “I wouldn’t think it’s unusual in this city, and I have never gotten a phone call from anybody asking about the occupancy of the building or the residency,” he added.
“If there’s anything we’re missing, we’re obviously happy to look into it and get what we need,” Mika said. “I don’t know if having an event at a building where people live is an appropriate way of addressing a problem. There’s a government agency—they can contact me if they’re missing something.” (A spokesman for DCRA says the 3504 13th St. NW building was cited this year for “non-licensed business activity.”)
Airbnb reacted to the press conference with its own release on the platform’s economic benefits, calling for “sensible regulations.” “We know the vast majority of our hosts—76 percent—in the District of Columbia are renting their primary residence a few times a year to help pay the mortgage, pay down debt, and make ends meet,” the company says in a statement. “We’ve had a number of productive conversations with the city and our host community on sensible rules that could work well for home sharing across the District, and look forward to moving these discussions into a positive resolution for all residents.”
Nadeau, herself an Airbnb user, says she wants to look at home-sharing services with a fine-toothed comb and target short-term rentals operating as de facto illegal hotels. She adds that she will introduce a “sense of the council” resolution Tuesday asking the D.C. Zoning Commission to examine places where the D.C. Code could be modernized as relates to home-sharing. “At a very basic level, we should be licensing people who are using these services,” Nadeau says. “I want to strike a balance that ensures law-abiding homeowners have the ability to participate in the sharing economy while also cracking down on illegal hotel operators. … Making money hand over fist without [a license] to do so and diminishing our affordable housing stock should make everyone angry.”
The allegations come as Airbnb mounts an ad campaign in D.C., touting the benefits of the platform. In October, the company reported that local hosts made more than $50 million combined last year through bookings. And in November, Airbnb projected that upwards of 10,000 people would rent rooms for Donald Trump‘s inauguration.
Affordable housing advocates say their investigation is the first part of a larger push underscoring the need to regulate short-term rentals. Relevant bills that the D.C. Council proposed in 2015 are set to expire at the end of December.