In many major metropolitan areas across the country, housing prices have skyrocketed and put the squeeze on low- and middle-income American families. A myriad of inefficient zoning policies have led to a lot of these problems, but bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., are pointing to a different scapegoat: technology startup Airbnb.
Airbnb allows renters and homeowners to share their living spaces with couch-crashers and short-term visitors, subject to local approval and regulations. Washington, D.C., makes it incumbent on the users to make sure their units are compliant with District laws – namely, that Airbnb operators must have the proper licenses and zoning approval.
However, that’s not good enough for the D.C. nannies.
Ward 1 councilwoman Brianne Nadeau, along with a coalition of activist and labor groups, ran what they called a “sting” on one Airbnb provider. They booked a unit that they claimed did not have the proper permitting approval, and cited this as a reason to crack down on Airbnb throughout the entire city.
Airbnb “reduces affordable housing in a city with an affordable housing crisis,” Nadeau said.
Washington has some of the highest property values and rents of any city in the country, and this “affordability crisis” talking point has been used by politicians across the country in their zeal to crack down. There’s only one problem: There’s no evidence that Airbnb is meaningfully contributing to the affordability problem.
In an analysis on FiveThirtyEight titled “Airbnb Probably Isn’t Driving Rents Up Much, At Least Not Yet,” data analyst Ariel Stulberg found that “any impact on rental supply is small, and limited to a handful of neighborhoods … that undercuts claims by some of the services’ harshest critics.” Airbnb is not even close to popular enough to be making much of a difference in prices.
Moreover, the prevalence of what Nadeau and her allies called “illegal hotels” – Airbnb properties rented out on what may be termed a commercial basis – is incredibly low. FiveThirtyEight found that it’s only around 10 percent of the total Airbnb availability in D.C.
Despite the small scope, Nadeau plans to introduce a proposal that will make the regulations for Airbnb more difficult to navigate – introducing a new level of licensing for short-term rentals and asking for more regulations from the Zoning Commission.
But cracking down on Airbnb won’t help D.C.’s property values problem.
If Nadeau and the D.C. Council really care about affordability, they might turn their sights on the District’s onerous height limit and zoning regulations.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a political constituency for tackling the real culprits of D.C.’s affordability problem. Residents like the height limit and they like restrictive zoning laws, even though policies like these have been estimated to impose more than a 10 percent cost increase on residents.
Sanfored Ikeda and Emily Hamilton of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center have found that such land-use regulation burdens “fall disproportionately on poor households, which spend a larger percentage of their income on housing.”
With so many problems contributing to rising rents and prices in D.C. and other cities around the country, politicians have baselessly chosen to target homesharing users and websites because of union-backed activism. Airbnb and other homesharing services by and large are a boon to local residents, but they’re a thorn in the side of the hotel industry and their unions. If politicians truly cared about affordability, they’d drop their misguided attacks on sharing services.