Capital offences: Gentrification opens door to … guess who

 

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON DC

There’s an interesting process underway in the US capital and it’s something with which we are familiar with here in Australia.

No, I don’t mean bombastic politicians conning the voters with promises that they can never keep, while laying all their self-inflicted woes at someone, anyone else’s door – although there’s plenty of that to go around.

As I latched on to a photographers’ tour of once run-down areas of Washington DC last week, I saw clear signs of gentrification that seems to have few benefits for existing residents with diminished opportunities for local buyers and renters.  It’s a process we know only too well in inner-city Australia.

Making life slightly more difficult for developers than in our two capitals, no building is allowed to be higher than the Washington Monument (with the odd exception), and others have to respect their immediate environment so every last skerrick of ground space is used as ‘repectfully’ as developers can get away with..

In the area that saw the riots, looting and arson following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, renovation and restoration has been piecemeal while surrounding residential streets are now starting to become desirable rather than no-go zones for the faint-hearted.

This leads to oddities like the picture above where two small fragments of original buildings are being subsumed into an apartment block.  Around the corner, once elegant townhouses, that later became virtual slums, are gutted and renovated.

These buildings that were once large family homes (for large families) then were subdivided into cheap accommodation for the working poor, and now are being reanimated as decent sized apartments for senior government workers, business people or, increasingly, Airbnb tourists.

As the redoubtable Murray Cox of InsideAirbnb.com has said many times, when online holiday letting accelerates the gentrification of American inner city areas, it’s poor black and Latino tenants who get driven out to the city fringes first.

A stylish, if incongruous renovation of an old brick building but, uh-oh, what’s that hanging off the rails?

As a result, just last week, Washington DC city council unanimously passed new laws that would forbid home owners from letting second properties for less that 30 days at a time, and restrict the letting of their own homes to no more than 90 days a year.  The only exemption would be home owners with medical conditions or work demands that required them to be away from home for a longer period.

For the record, according to Inside Airbnb, Washington currently has 7800 Airbnb listings, almost 70 percent of which are whole houses or apartments.

It should be noted, however, that across the Potomac River in Arlington, similar laws have been an abysmal failure.  There, more than 1000 holiday rentals are listed online but only 73 “hosts” have applied for the supposedly mandatory permits.

Many experts agree that the only effective means of enforcing restrictions is through a register of short-term holiday rentals, policed by the agencies themselves, rather than depending on neighbours to dob-in suspected miscreants.

The reluctance of the letting agencies to divulge the identities of their hosts, citing privacy as their main concern, suggests that they will have to be dragged in chains to accepting registration. And it ain’t going to happen here in Australia, any time soon.

However, market forces – so beloved of those politicians who have been so quick to sell us and our homes down the river – are beginning to take effect.

In Melbourne, some developers of high-end properties are now demanding legal caveats from purchasers that they will not list their properties on holiday letting websites.

Why? Because wealthier apartment buyers don’t want their lives “disrupted” by party animals and holidaymakers. But all that this means is that less well-off home owners and renters will have to put up with the “parasites and predators” of short-term holiday letting, as broadcaster Jon Faine recently called them.

Back in Washington, they are trying to set some boundaries, despite being distracted by the disruptive antics of another temporary resident … the one in the White House.

But rest assured if they have any chance of success, Airbnb will be revving up their lawyers to protect their almost tax-free profits.  Meanwhile, who will protect us poor deluded fools, who thought we were buying or renting homes, not hotels?

 

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