January 7, 2017

On Homesharing, Richmond Must Ignore Arlington's Bad Example

Christopher Koopman

Senior Affiliated Scholar
Summary

The opportunities created by the sharing economy shouldn’t be restricted to only those few who are deemed worthy.

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Depending on whom you ask, homesharing — like the rest of the “sharing economy” — has created both opportunities and headaches for Virginians.

It’s an opportunity for those looking to turn spare bedrooms and couches into extra money; it brings on headaches for hotels and policymakers trying to adapt to a world they never envisioned.

The General Assembly took a swing at adapting to the new business model this past year, passing a bill that would pre-empt local homesharing regulation.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, however, asked for more time to study the issue and to create new legislation for the upcoming 2017 session.

In the meantime, hoping to be grandfathered into whatever the General Assembly settles, Arlington County has rushed to fill the void: The county recently passed its own regulations on homesharing.

“Like other jurisdictions,” County Board Chair Libby Garvey recently explained, “Arlington is adapting to the rise of the sharing economy.” Indeed, the county is adapting. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right approach.

Yes, the new rules will allow for homesharing through platforms like Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner). Yes, the new rules clear up ambiguity regarding how these short-term rentals fit into the country’s existing zoning. And yes, the new rules empower condominium or homeowners’ associations to make their own decisions about homesharing in their communities. These are positive steps forward.

However, when Arlington’s rules went into effect on Dec. 31, they completely cut off nearly 56 percent of Arlington’s housing units from taking advantage of homesharing.

The rules, as written, prohibit anyone from renting out spare bedrooms except those who both own and occupy their property. This effectively forecloses approximately 57,298 units from being used to create extra income for those facing the ever-increasing cost of living in Northern Virginia.

Whether or not you are able to take advantage of platforms such as Airbnb should not depend on whether you are privileged enough to own the home you live in. Nor should it depend on your ability to afford a home at all. On the contrary, the major selling point for many users is that it makes what would otherwise be an unaffordable situation more affordable.

Think of the young Virginia Commonwealth University grad that will move to Arlington after graduation this spring. If her landlord permits her to use Airbnb, why should the law prevent it? Why discriminate against people in her shoes by saying that only those fortunate enough to own their homes have the ability to turn extra space into cash?

It also denies those looking for affordable options to visit our nation’s capital from taking advantage of those thousands of rental units that surround the metro stops throughout the region.

Imagine the young family from Roanoke looking to take their children to the inauguration and show them how a peaceful transition of power works in America. Should they pay more because the Arlington County Board decided that only certain residents in Northern Virginia were worthy of renting rooms for the weekend?

The opportunities created by the sharing economy shouldn’t be restricted to only those few who are deemed worthy. If Richmond is going to take this issue up again in 2017, it’s clear that there is a right way and wrong way to proceed. How that looks can vary, but ignoring what Arlington did would certainly be a good first step.