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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.
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?
Jimmy T – As a frequent visitor to the DC area (and Arlington in particular) the locks that you see outside of apartment blocks are generally not for AirBNB tenants but are for real estate agents who are showing their clients through properties that are for sale or for normal rental within those buildings.
Often properties are listed with many agents. Rather than each agent having a set of keys the keys are locked within a ‘lock box’ and only the code to open the ‘lock box’ needs to be sent to the various agents.
I agree that some may be for AirBNB but generally the majority are for legitimate sellers or rental agents.
It’s all part of the city life cycle: a regular area eventually gets run down as life and times moves on, it becomes less attractive so less number of folks live there, so less businesses survive there, so there’s less tax collected to fund local services, so the place looks dodgy, so the rents go down, so the area attracts less desirable types. After a period it’s the alternative/creative types that get established there, they rebuild the place with cool bars and coffee shops and art galleries, more folks want to live there, more tax gets collected, rents and realty go up, the cool kids move out, a regular area is reestablished. Rinse repeat. It’s been interesting to watch this happen around New York districts multiple times over the years and I see it in Brisbane’s West End and New Farm/Newstead area also.
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