The Ward 8 Democrats held a debate on affordable housing and whether home-sharing is beneficial for District of Columbia residents. The debate, “Affordable Housing vs. Airbnb” was held at the St. Elizabeths East R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center May 20.

Will Burns, the public policy director for Airbnb, sat on a panel discussing affordable housing in relation to home-sharing. (Courtesy Photo)

Panelists included Will Burns, public policy director for home-sharing behemoth Airbnb; Synta Keeling, a Ward 7 host for Airbnb; Desmond Surrette, deputy political director of Local 25 UNITE HERE representing 6,500 hospitality workers in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area; Jim McCrath, founder of tenant advocate organization TENAC, and Charles Leocha, founder and president of advocacy group Travelers United.

The primary issue was “The Short Term Rental Regulation and Affordable Housing Protection Act of 2017.” This legislation, authored by D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), makes it illegal for District property owners to post multiple addresses for short-term rentals and would cut the number of days a homeowner could rent a property from an unlimited amount of time to 15 days per year.

Additionally, the bill wouldn’t restrict those who rents out a basement apartment or rooms within their primary residence, or homeowners doing business with Airbnb. Firms like Airbnb would have to be licensed and regulated.

Burns said Airbnb is a good corporate neighbor in the District and not just here to make money. “We are committed to paying our taxes,” he said. “Airbnb is good for the city because home sharers on average earn $5,800 a year in extra income. I believe that we should be regulated and there should be a cap on the number of nights that Airbnb uses and the hosts should be licensed.”

Burns is skeptical about McDuffie’s bill because it would cause undue regulations on the hosts and impede his company’s growth in the city.

Synta Keeling is an Airbnb host in Ward 7, with her residence in the Capitol View/Marshall Heights section. Keeling said her experiences as a host have been positive and Airbnb should be given a chance to flourish. “Hosts are sharing a part of our houses and we should get to do it year-round,” Keeling said. “What we do really helps because there are no hotels in Wards 7 or 8 and we provide a service. Being a host is a great way to supplement income and it really helps because I am a government attorney and I am away sometimes and somebody in the house while I’m is a benefit.”

Surrette made it clear that Airbnb and other home-sharing companies shouldn’t have a free pass from the District government. “We don’t want to ban home-sharing in the city but the city should regulate short-term rentals,” he said. “What does this mean for residents of Ward 8? We don’t want a situation where available housing units are used by Airbnb to make money and not house people.”+

He made it clear Local 25 supports homeowners who rent out rooms but said, “The city needs clearer laws on home-sharing.”

McGrath was blunt in his assessment of the District’s housing situation and of Airbnb. “There is no affordable housing in this city,” he said. “It is tough for homeless people and middle-income people to live in this city. There are some people who want to make Washington, D.C. another Beverly Hills or Boca Raton.”

Former D.C. Council member LaRuby May requested Surrette work with Ward 8 leaders to get a hotel in the ward. He agreed to that, tentatively.

According to Curbed, a District real estate market publication, Wards 7 and 8 Airbnb outlets increased 95 percent over the previous year and guest arrivals increased by 165 percent.

Leocha supports Airbnb in the city but is aware of the high costs of housing in the District. He said the short-term rental market in the District is a positive and should be supported. “If there is an attempt to curtail the short-term rental market the winner will be the hotel industry in Washington,” Leocha said. “Washington, D.C. is becoming known as a city for short-term renters, whether they are in the military, in government, and in corporate America on a short-term assignment.”

The people who attended the debate were largely quiet and seemed to try to digest the issues. Pho Palmer, a political and civic activist in the ward, seemed sympathetic to Airbnb. “There are no hotels east of the River,” she said. “Airbnb could help increase incomes east of the River with business opportunities.”