The District’s Airbnb bill is too restrictive
In seeking to curb de-facto hotels, the council would chill legitimate home sharing.
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.