FEATURED:

DC becomes new front in war over Airbnb

DC becomes new front in war over Airbnb
© Getty

Washington, D.C. is the new frontline in Airbnb's nationwide fight with the hotel industry.

The city's local government is on the verge of approving some of the most strict regulations in the country on homesharing sites like Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO.

The city and hotel industry, which is pushing for the rules, say they are helping preserve affordable housing in D.C., which they claim is being threatened by Airbnb.

The city council voted on Oct. 2 to give preliminary approval to tougher regulations on Airbnb rentals in the nation's capital

ADVERTISEMENT

If approved in a final vote, they would restrict people who own multiple homes in D.C. from listing them on homesharing sites. And the rules would limit the number of days a home could be listed on Airbnb to 90 over a year.

Airbnb, though, is fighting back. They note that the hotel industry has long sought to push cities to more tightly regulate homesharing, which they see as a threat to their business model.

Airbnb is launching a public relations blitz in the city, arguing that the regulations go to far and making the case that restricting homesharing could cut off a valuable revenue stream for many D.C. locals.

“We are at a moment of historic income inequality,” said Airbnb’s head of public affairs, Christopher Nulty told The Hill. “I’m not aware of any program that allows a typical person to earn this type of extra money without impacting people around them.

"We don’t think homesharing is a long-term solution for closing the income inequality gap, but we think it’s an important tool,” he added.

Nulty said that he believes Airbnb helps the city deal with its affordable housing crunch, by finding use for unoccupied units.

Many homes in D.C. are unoccupied for long stretches of the year as the consultants, lobbyists and diplomats split their time in other cities. Sharing those spaces makes it more affordable for tourists to stay in D.C. and brings income streams into areas like neighborhoods like Anacostia where there are virtually no hotels, Airbnb contends.

“A lot of that extra money is helping people who would otherwise be priced out, stay in the District,” Nulty said.

Troy Flanagan, vice president of government affairs at American Hotel and Lodging Association, dismissed those claims.

"We want a level playing field," Flanagan said, claiming that AHLA doesn't want to interfere with small-time hosts making supplemental income from homesharing. 

"Where we differ is once we get beyond your primary residence. Once someone is renting out their third or fourth property, that looks like the hotel industry," he continued. 

Nulty countered that some of the restrictions, including a new 90-day upper limit on the time a property could be listed, would still negatively impact hosts who rent out their primary residences.

For Airbnb, D.C. is just the latest battleground in a long-running fight with the hotel industry, as each tries to gain the upper hand across the country.

In recent years, the two industries have clashed over regulations in cities including San Francisco, New York and Seattle.

The housing industry says they want more oversight over Airbnb, saying it should be subject to the same tax and safety rules they are. Airbnb for its part claims it backs reasonable regulations so that cities can recoup taxes and so that they can build legitimacy as they push into newer markets.

Both sides have beefed up their lobbying and enlisted local politicians and civic and homeowner groups over legislation that would regulate homesharing.

The two sides have also clashed over their tactics.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, the hotel industry's most prominent trade group, has funded a number of smaller groups with names such as “Keep Neighborhoods First," the “Fairbnb Coalition," and in the capital, “It’s Time D.C.,” and "ShareBetter D.C.”

Airbnb has accused the hotel lobbying of using those smaller groups to hide its influence and unfairly influence local debates about homesharing.

The AHLA has defended its efforts, saying it is only helping to organize likeminded individuals and organizations who share the same concerns about homesharing.

But some of those efforts have sparked controversy.

Early on in the D.C. fight, Share Better released a video featuring a woman claiming to be a Washington, D.C. resident. The woman said her neighborhood had been inundated with Airbnb renters, so much so that she “felt like an outsider” in a place that should have been home.

But Washington D.C. news station NBC News 4 revealed in 2017 that the woman was actually an actor who lives in New York, not a resident of the D.C. neighborhood she claimed to live in.

In another instance, the Miami Herald reported that during a 2017 news conference a member of a public relations team had posed as a member of the press and asked a local Florida mayor questions about homesharing regulations. That PR firm had been hired by an AHLA state partner, the Florida Hotel Association.

Airbnb for its part has also sought to mobilize its users to tout what it says are the benefits of its service.

Others note that outside of the hotel industry's efforts, opposition to Airbnb is a real phenomenon in many cities.

The fight in D.C. also certainly won't be the last, with Airbnb working to expand to new markets. Other communities will soon need to grapple with the same questions.

“Airbnb is good as long as it's not destructive to the community,” said Graylin Presbury, president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, about the difficult debate.

“We’re not against homeowners making some money on a short-term basis. But there has to be some limits."