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D.C. mayor declines to sign unanimously approved bill regulating Airbnb activity

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According to Mayor Muriel Bowser, the bill is overly restrictive and may be challenged in court

Alyssa Nassner

In a signal of her disapproval, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has opted to leave unsigned a bill that prohibits homeowners from renting out, on a short-term basis, homes other than their primary residences. The legislation, which the D.C. Council unanimously green-lighted last November, also limits the total number of days per year that homeowners may rent out their primary residences when they are absent (for so-called “vacation stays”), to 90 in most cases.

The bill is poised to become law after a 30-day congressional review period required for D.C. legislation and represents the first time the District has sought to comprehensively regulate short-term rental units, often marketed on digital booking platforms like Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway. But in a memo to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson this week, Bowser says the measure “could have struck a better balance” between residents being allowed to use Airbnb and its ilk to generate income and concerns that short-term rentals disrupt neighborhoods, including by constraining the supply of long-term housing and attracting transient visitors.

Citing advice from D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s office and pointing to a “similar bill enacted by New York City” that a federal judge has temporarily blocked from taking effect, Bowser also says the District’s legislation “is unlikely to survive a potential legal challenge.” “The mandatory [data] reporting requirements in [the] bill mirror those in the New York City bill and would likely fail to pass constitutional muster on the same grounds,” writes Bowser.

But supporters of the regulatory effort say the legislation will help D.C. officials crack down on illegal hotels in residential neighborhoods and keep housing prices in check. “Protecting affordable housing options in D.C. is vital to our efforts in ending homelessness and helping low-income families find a stable, affordable home,” says Kelly Sweeney McShane, the CEO of Community of Hope, a nonprofit focused on low-income families’ needs, in a statement. A diverse coalition that included housing activists, civic groups, and hotels favored the policies.

Booking platforms, tech and tourism groups, and some homeowners opposed the legislation. In a statement, Airbnb says it hopes “to work with the D.C. Council to address the issues that [Mayor Bowser] highlighted, and provide a true path forward for home-sharing in D.C.” The company also notes that its District hosts earned $96 million by using its platform last year.

The final version of the bill features a “hardship exemption” to the annual cap on vacation stays for homeowners who can show officials their jobs or family medical situations force them to be out the District for more than 90 days a year. Also, D.C. zoning commissioners still must update city zoning rules to technically let short-term rentals in residential zones.