To Airbnb or not? Fairfax County mulls short-term rental regulations | Crain's Washington D.C.

To Airbnb or not? Fairfax County mulls short-term rental regulations

George Washington's estate in Alexandria, Va., is among the tourist attractions in Fairfax County, where officials are working on regulations to govern short-term property rentals on sites like Airbnb. | Photo by Anita Mishra via Wikimedia

As more and more people join the ranks of homeowners renting out their properties on Airbnb, municipalities around the country are grappling with how—or if—such short-term rentals should be regulated.

In Fairfax County, officials are working toward putting some specific rules on the books, after completing a survey of residents’ opinions this summer. Currently, the county allows short-term rentals only as bed-and-breakfasts in certain zoning districts, with a special exception from the county.

Fairfax County Zoning Administrator Leslie Johnson said there are no B&Bs legally registered—yet an Airbnb search for all properties in the county yields more than 300 results, indicating many people aren’t following the law. Still, she said, the county is not prosecuting anyone now and wants to avoid it.

“If we can come up with reasonable standards that protect neighbors from noise and other nuisances, we can allow for some of this,” she said. “It’s a balancing issue.”

Johnson said the county hopes to have something on the books within six months—and for now, it’s simply zoning regulations, not taxes, under consideration.

Fairfax County completed its survey of residents’ opinions on short-term rentals at the end of August, and the results indicate that overall, most respondents favor the practice in all types of dwellings. The canvass of 7,671 people—93 percent of whom characterized themselves as homeowners—indicated that nearly 82 percent approve of short-term rentals in detached, single-family homes, and nearly 63 percent believe short-term rentals should be allowed in apartments.

More than three-quarters want the county to limit the number of adult guests allowed per bedroom while nearly half (48.67 percent) said the county should not limit the number of nights per year a dwelling can be rented if the owner or renter is present, but 57.14 percent favored limits in cases where the guests would be on their own. Some 38.66 percent said residents should be present at a short-term rental while it is being used.

 “We’re trying to find a balance so as to allow some of these uses,” Johnson said. “Some people say they’re retired and want to travel and allow someone to come in. There are those who want someone to come in every weekend versus someone who wants to rent out for six months.”

Johnson said Fairfax County is looking at what other jurisdictions have done for guidance. She noted that San Francisco requires that short-term rental hosts use their units as a principle residence for 275 days of the year. In Virginia, neighboring Arlington County requires a unit to be used as a residence by the owner for 181 days a year.

“They have people who go down to Florida for the winter. They didn’t want to preclude that option. Other jurisdictions have a maximum of 90 days but you can’t be there for only 30 days,” she said.

Parking is a major concern among residents of Fairfax County.

“When you get larger groups, say bringing families together for a reunion, you can have five, six, seven cars. We don’t want to require people to pave their property,” Johnson said.

Arlington County approved its short-term rental restrictions in December, effective Dec. 31. Paramount among the considerations was preserving neighborhood character, reducing barriers for those who want to open their homes and a way to deal with situations when problems arise.

Among the restrictions was limiting the number of lodgers to six per unit or two per bedroom per night. Requirements for smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide detectors also must be met. Parties, banquets, weddings, meetings, charitable fundraising, commercial or advertising activities or gatherings that generate revenue are not allowed.

People who want to rent out their homes must apply for a no-cost permit, although that aspect may be reconsidered.

Besides residents and municipalities, the other major player in the short-term rental conversation is the hotel and motel industry—which, naturally, is worried about its bottom line.

Rosanna Maietta, senior vice president of communications for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said only 20 percent of Airbnb’s business comes from rentals by an owner who is present.

“And hosts renting out two or more entire home units are the fastest growing segment of Airbnb’s business, generating over $1.8 billion in revenue in 2016, or 32 percent of Airbnb’s total revenue nationwide. Indeed, commercial operators are already generating 30 percent of Airbnb’s D.C.-area revenue, and the problem is inflaming, rising 134 percent in one year,” Maietta said.

“This is a business model based on the growth of commercial activity and illegal hotels—not middle-class families looking to earn a few extra dollars. And lawmakers around the country are taking notice.”

The nation’s 54,000 hotels and motels generate $600 billion in revenue annually, and $170 billion in taxes, Maietta said.

“Zoning, safety and health codes exist for a reason,” Maietta said, “and it is unfortunate that Airbnb is so eager to help individuals flout those common-sense rules.”

Airbnb spokeswoman Crystal Davis disputed the assertion.

“We know directly from our community that the large majority of our hosts are sharing space in their primary home to help pay their mortgage and make ends meet, yet the hotel industry continues to unfairly and deliberately mischaracterize these middle-class families,” she said. “If we're truly seeking productive and honest discussions around home sharing rules, these mistruths need to stop.”

September 28, 2017 - 12:01pm