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D.C. attorney general probes short-term rentals at dozens of apartment buildings

The suspected activity could violate rent control and consumer protection laws

Downtown D.C.
Evgenia Parajanian/Shutterstock

The District’s top lawyer is notifying landlords who appear to lease apartments like hotel rooms that they may be breaking the law.

On Wednesday, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sent letters requesting information about short-term rental practices from 19 owners and managers of 33 multifamily buildings in the city suspected of running hotel-type operations. In a release, Racine’s office does not specify the landlords or their buildings, but says blocks of short-term rentals—usually advertised on vacation websites—are “concentrated in neighborhoods like Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, and Chinatown.”

This means people have fewer opportunities to find traditional leases “where demand is the greatest and few affordable options exist,” according to the attorney general’s office. Some residents have also griped about short-term rentals drawing unruly guests to their buildings and leading to security issues in recent months, the release notes.

“We’ve heard complaints that some landlords misled their long-term residents about these rentals,” Racine says in a statement, adding that the letters his office sent put landlords “on notice that short-term rentals must comply with the District’s consumer protection and rent control laws.”

Those laws require businesses to provide adequate disclosures about the material terms of the goods or services they sell, and prohibit landlords from converting rent-controlled units into temporary accommodations, respectively. Racine’s office argues that operating rentals less than 90 days in length in apartment buildings is misleading when tenants are not made aware of the activity.

His letters request information about the circumstances under which the landlords permit short-term rental units “either directly or through an agreement with another business.” They also ask for the numbers of such units as well as copies of any contracts with third-party businesses involved in short-term rental activity and notices to long-term residents.

“We are contacting you,” the letters say, “because it appears possible to rent a unit at your properties for as little as one night via the websites bridgestreet.com, stayalfred.com, and globalluxurysuites.com.” These websites, among others, offer platforms where prospective guests can search for and book short-term rentals.

This isn’t the first time Racine has gone after suspected operators of hotel-like apartments. Last fall and last spring, his office settled with landlords and an outside company alleged to have run short-term rental units in apartment buildings as illegal hotel units. In some cases, the short-term rentals were of rent-controlled units, which Racine said “deplet[ed] the city’s inventory” of affordable housing.

Public complaints about the disruptions that short-term rental guests can cause have also seen an uptick. In December, residents of a luxury apartment building in Logan Circle told the Washington City Paper that temporary visitors threw loud parties and clogged common areas, and that their landlord had not fully disclosed the extent of the activity before they moved in.

Residents of another luxury apartment building, along the H Street NE corridor, also told the paper in July that they had experienced similar issues, including “[drunk] interns launching fireworks off the roof” and overtaking the building’s pool. UrbanTurf reported this week that in June, the city signaled that it would revoke this building’s current occupancy certificate if the situation did not change, but on Monday the owner appealed the city’s notice to revoke.

WAMU recently documented the rise of short-term rentals in D.C. apartment buildings. The station found that “major developers...are turning to temporary housing services to fill the gap” between when their buildings first open and longer-term tenants move in.

Racine’s action comes as the D.C. Council is expected to vote on new short-term rental regulations this fall. Under a bill by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, landlords would be required to register their short-term rental listings with the District, and units would be subject to certain restrictions on lengths of stay and numbers of guests.

In a statement to Curbed DC, Racine says he is glad lawmakers are examining the issue. “We need a regulatory scheme for short-term rentals that is clear and that protects the safety and security of residents and visitors,” he says. “We also need protections to maintain our supply of affordable housing.”