No rush to regulate city Airbnbs

IMAGE: Etta May Inn in Takoma Park is a registered bed-and-breakfast that also lists on Airbnb. Photo by Bill Brown.

BY VICKEY CASEY

MAY 17 — Tom and Kathy Swift have lived in their recently renovated home for 23 years. Their adult children now live away from home. Two months ago the Swifts joined thousands across the globe who provide travelers with a comfortable place to stay in their beautiful neighborhood.

The Swifts do not run a hotel. Instead they rent their son’s former room on Airbnb – an online service created in 2008 that connects travelers to home owners with spare space.

Airbnb is still relatively new and lawmakers all over the world are struggling to find ways of regulating them. While others are pressed to create laws for Airbnbs, Takoma Park residents, city council and Airbnb operators are not too bothered.

There are three registered hotels in Takoma Park and twenty or thirty Airbnbs. It is difficult to get an exact count on the Airbnb website. It costs less to stay in one of the unregulated bed and breakfasts than the hotels in the small city or DC. Last year the county put a seven percent tax on Airbnbs.

Then in Feb 2016, Montgomery County councilmember, Hans Reimer, proposed a legislation that would have placed moderate rules on Airbnbs in the county. It stipulated the length of time travelers could stay, the number of lodgers a host could have and where those with cars can park. “Critics did not think it was strict enough,” said Reimer after the legislation was struck down in March.

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Eden Park Guest Housein Old Takoma on Carroll Avenue. Photo by Vickey Casey.

These regulations would be different for businesses such as Eden Park Guest House and Etta Mae Inn, two bed-and-breakfasts in Takoma Park which also advertise rooms on Airbnb. Eden Park and Etta Mae have to follow a different set of guidelines than hotels. The regulations are strict, said Reimer, so businesses like these, which function in both worlds, will have to choose one or the other so that lawmakers would not have to write another set of laws for them.

Francoise de Reeper, owner of Etta Mae Inn, has not seen any benefit from listing her business as both. “I have guests that used to come through the regular way and now through Airbnb,” said de Reeper. “I think the regulations are just a way to start charging money for the county.” Etta Mae’s location in Takoma Park’s historic district has given her some additional challenges.

The historic district requires her to put up a sign and pay approximately $1,600 in license fees. “That’s what people do as an alternative for not having to go through this stuff,” said de Reeper. “There is an obvious need for it so people are being entrepreneurial. I don’t see why all of this is necessary.”

While Reimer works on a second draft of the bill, the Takoma Park City Council is focused on other things. It is budget season and Mayor Kate Stewart and her six council members do not consider the bed and breakfasts an issue, yet. “I haven’t received comments specifically to Airbnbs in Takoma park,” said city Mayor Kate Stewart. “That doesn’t mean that if we held a work session on it or went out and asked for people’s opinions on it, they wouldn’t have opinions about it.”

They will keep the county’s actions regarding the legislation in their sights for the time being. “I think it’s still a fairly new phenomenon,” said Mayor Stewart. “What impact it’s going to have on the community is something we’re going to need to pay attention to. We need to think about how it impacts the character of our community.”

Airbnb operator Swift is also unfamiliar with the legislation and while he is in favor having laws, he hopes that only one set will be written and enforced. “Things become complicated when both the city and the county write regulations for us,” says Swift. “But if I had to choose, I would want the city to do it.”

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Etta May Inn. Photo by Bill Brown.

Takoma Park is a municipality of Montgomery County and does not need to enforce all laws and legislations created by the county. Zoning is an area where the city falls under county regulations, said Sue Silber, Takoma Park’s city attorney.

“There are some other options for Takoma Park’s involvement, but on its face, the county, sitting as the District Council for Maryland National Capitol Park and Planning Authority, would be able to write its own legislation which would then apply in Takoma Park,” said Silber. “Takoma Park would have to go to the state legislature to seek any modifications.”

Council member Reimer hopes that the legislation will be ready for county consideration this summer. De Reeper believes that this out-of-the-box kind of business fits into Takoma Park’s culture very well. “I’ve seen the city change, but it still feels the same,” says de Reeper. “It still feels like [a city with] a lot of caring, a lot of giving, a lot of open mindedness.”

The Swifts have not had complaints from neighbors in the months they have hosted. “It’s actually quieter when guests are here,” he said. “We don’t play loud music during the day or anything like that.”

Swift and other Airbnb operators are careful of who they book. Some people are only looking for places to hold house parties, he said. He remembered an inquirer who was more focused on whether or not the couple would be home during the booking. Upon checking the potential booking’s reviews, he discovered that this particular traveler had held an unsanctioned party in a previous location and left significant damage.

This story stresses the importance of actually living in the Airbnb residence and maintaining a presence there. This is something that many hosts already do and is one point of Reimer’s bill. “You really open yourself up to a lot of trouble if you don’t,” said Swift.


Vickey D. Casey is a graduate student at Georgetown University studying journalism. She moved to Takoma Park in January 2016. She is an amateur photographer and filmmaker and lover of baked goods.