The District’s Airbnb bill is too re­stric­tive

In seek­ing to curb de-facto ho­tels, the coun­cil would chill le­git­i­mate home shar­ing.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

HOME-SHAR­ING ser­vices such as Airbnb have ex­ploded over the past few years, which is good. Trav­el­ers get more op­tions — both in terms of price and lo­ca­tion — and prop­erty own­ers can make money on spare rooms or on their apart­ments while they are away. With some ba­sic reg­u­la­tions, mean­while, cities can be­come more at­trac­tive to visi­tors and col­lect ho­tel tax rev­enues. Win-win-win.

These con­sid­er­a­tions are par­tic­u­larly com­pelling in real es­tate scarce Wash­ing­ton, which saw a surge of Airbnb book­ings dur­ing last month’s in­au­gu­ra­tion and protests. Yet the D.C. Coun­cil is now con­sid­er­ing a bill that would re­strict home shar­ing, out of con­cern that some land­lords have used ser­vices such as Airbnb to es­tab­lish de-facto ho­tels in build­ings reg­u­lated as res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties. This has fu­eled fears that home shar­ing is driv­ing units out of the rental mar­ket and, there­fore, driv­ing up rents.

There is a way to deal with this con­cern with­out chill­ing le­git­i­mate home shar­ing. The coun­cil pro­posal isn’t the way.

The bill, of­fered by Coun­cil mem­ber Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), has a few de­cent ideas. It would man­date that own­ers rent only one prop­erty at a time, a sen­si­ble re­stric­tion that would im­me­di­ately and ef­fec­tively crack down on un­der-the-radar apart­ment-build­ing ho­tels. It would also de­mand that own­ers ob­tain a spe­cial busi­ness li­cense to of­fer rentals on Airbnb and ser­vices like it. Some form of reg­is­tra­tion makes sense, but the coun­cil must en­sure the process is sim­ple. The city should in­ves­ti­gate ways of al­low­ing own­ers to com­plete the process with­out leav­ing shar­ing ser­vices’ apps.

Even if own­ers only rent out a sin­gle prop­erty, of course, they could still treat sec­ond homes as year­round ho­tel rooms. One way to limit the ef­fects this might have on rental hous­ing stock is to re­quire that peo­ple can only of­fer their pri­mary res­i­dences on home-shar­ing ser­vices. But such a blan­ket rule is too strict: Why does it make sense to in­sist that peo­ple’s sec­ond homes sit empty when own­ers are not there? The bill also lim­its own­ers to rent­ing their homes for 15 days a year while they are not present. This is far too re­stric­tive. New Or­leans, by con­trast, set a sim­i­lar cap at a more rea­son­able 90 days per year, which is a more flex­i­ble way to al­lay con­cerns about sec­ond homes be­com­ing de-facto ho­tel units.

More­over, the bill would slap ex­ces­sive fines on vi­o­la­tors — $1,000 to $7,000 on hosts in vi­o­la­tion of the bill, and $1,000 on home-shar­ing ser­vices for each im­proper book­ing they fa­cil­i­tate. Fines of that size would no doubt de­ter ev­ery­day peo­ple in fear of ac­ci­den­tally run­ning afoul of city rules.

As for Airbnb, if it wants to fend off more in­tru­sive reg­u­la­tions, it must faith­fully co­op­er­ate with the city to en­sure the one-list­ing-per-owner rule and other sen­si­ble lim­its are suc­cess­fully en­forced.

Any dis­cus­sion of af­ford­able hous­ing in Wash­ing­ton, mean­while, is woe­fully in­com­plete with­out point­ing at ir­ra­tional zon­ing and other re­stric­tions that se­verely limit build­ing. Al­low­ing for more den­sity is the most vi­able long-term strat­egy for en­sur­ing hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity. The coun­cil should spend less time wring­ing its hands about Airbnb and more time re­mov­ing gov­ern­men­tal ob­sta­cles to hous­ing growth.

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