Our View: Is a guest room a hotel, and should it be treated as such?

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(File photo)

Innovation is both the American way and a major driver of our country’s economy. Technology giants like Microsoft, Apple and Facebook were hatched by young visionaries who created revolutionary new products. Our world would be very different without their contributions.

In the past 10 years, two new companies have caused revolutions in the way we travel — Uber and Airbnb. As a result, consumers have more and cheaper options of where to stay and how to get there, but traditional and brick-and-mortar operations like local taxi companies and hotels have suffered from the new competition.

Local governments have also wrestled with how to regulate and tax these entrepreneurial entities, with which anyone with a decent car or a spare room can make money.

A bipartisan bill currently making its way through the Virginia General Assembly attempts to address the equity issues surrounding Airbnb rentals. We generally support the legislation, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-3), though we have reservations about some parts of the bill as passed by the state Senate.

Key provisions in the bill, which were also part of the legislative package advocated by Alexandria’s all-Democratic Richmond delegation, would require Airbnb hosts to register with their local government, pay the same room tax rates as local hotels and comply with local zoning ordinances.

Requiring registration and taxation is necessary not just for Airbnb hosts, but for food trucks, Uber drivers and any entity that wants to do business in Alexandria — particularly if they compete with established businesses that have gone through the city’s traditional zoning and building permit process.

In addition, it makes sense to require that, for instance, food trucks comply with the city’s food safety regulations or Airbnb hosts meet basic fire and safety regulations.

But at the same time, over-regulation would quash the entrepreneurial spirit behind Airbnb. Someone who rents a room in their house is not operating a hotel, and they shouldn’t be required to comply with every regulation that a full-blown hotel does. Once government enters into regulating something, it often goes too far.

In addition, we are opposed to the provision in the bill that passed the state Senate, introduced by Sen. William Stanley (R-20), requiring that Airbnb hosts get their neighbors’ approval before renting out their rooms, for several reasons.

First, such a requirement is an affront to the principle of private property. We don’t need our neighbors’ permission for what goes on within our own homes.

Second, allowing one neighbor to hold such sway over another harkens back to several noxious ordinances already on Alexandria’s books, such as the three-day parking rule that is primarily enforced when someone is ratted out by a neighbor.

Finally, residents already have the ability to seek redress for noise or safety concerns in Alexandria’s existing city code. We don’t need an Airbnb-specific regulation to address those concerns.

There are several ways to address the “is it a hotel or isn’t it” question, particularly since some people seem to be buying properties with the sole intention of using them for short-term rentals.

For instance, if an entire home is on the short-term rental market for more than half of any calendar year, it could be subject to all regulations that traditional hotels face. Or localities could simply disallow such properties to be rented out in total more than three or four months out of the year.

On balance, the approximately 375 regular Airbnb listings within Alexandria are meeting an economic need in the city. We should tax and register them, but not regulate them out of business.

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