by Christina Sandefur
Last month, I wrote about the Washington, D.C., City Council’s vote to advance some of the nation’s strictest regulations on home-sharing. After concerned homeowners urged the council to consider a more reasonable approach, a final vote on the proposal was postponed. Unfortunately, the strict regulations were revived last week and received a final, unanimous vote from the Council.
If signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, the D.C. ordinance—scheduled to take effect in October 2019—would outlaw home-sharing in the District unless it takes place in a homeowner’s primary residence, and even primary residence rentals would be limited to just 90 days per year unless the homeowner is present during the rental. There is a “hardship exemption,” if D.C. officials are convinced that homeowners are deserving of an exemption to the 90-day rule, but only people whose jobs or medical conditions take them away from D.C. for longer than three months. No other kinds of hardship, including financial, will be taken into consideration for an exemption. Even Mayor Bowser has said she believes the ordinance would be too restrictive for D.C. home-sharers, but it has sufficient support to override a veto.
I’ve previously pointed out why such restrictions are costly for cities and their taxpayers, are economically unsound, and deprive responsible homeowners of their right to use their property as they see fit. D.C. already ranks among the most expensive cities to visit in the United States, and this ordinance would put a trip to the nation’s capital out of reach for more and more travelers. It’s also one of the most expensive U.S. cities to live in, so taking away the ability to share one’s home could make it even more difficult for D.C. homeowners to reside there.
Yet in D.C. and across the country, bureaucrats are forsaking reason—and any semblance of a reasonable regulatory approach to home-sharing—and instead wielding their powers like a sledgehammer. They’re often encouraged by special interests, like commercial hotels, who, rather than compete, would prefer to outlaw their competition. They’re goaded by small-but-vocal cadres of busybody neighbors who wish to use the heavy hand of government to limit what other homeowners may do with their property. And they’re left unchecked by state legislators and judges who would turn a blind eye to these abuses in the name of deferring to “local control.”
These are poor excuses for enabling the government to intrude on important rights such as property and privacy. After all, the reason we have state and federal constitutional protections for our rights, rather than letting cities run rampant, is to ensure that local governments focus on their most vital jobs—including protecting quiet, clean, and safe neighborhoods—without turning into a tyranny of the majority (or, in many cases, the vocal minority). And while no one wants to live next to a nuisance, cities already have the tools to address genuine nuisances such as noise or traffic problems, without violating homeowners’ constitutional rights.
Some people complain that home-sharing brings outside visitors into their neighborhoods, when they’d prefer to live next to permanent residents. Although we all have our own notions of what constitutes an ideal community, we do not have a right to a certain lifestyle, nor do we have a right to force others to refrain from responsibly living their lives as they see fit in order to conform to our individual preferences. Indeed, it’s very dangerous to allow government to decide what types of guests someone can invite into in their private home. Throughout history, local officials have improperly used this excuse to justify targeting politically unpopular groups or individuals.
In a free society, if we want someone to refrain from exercising their property rights, we must persuade them to do so, often by giving them something in return. Sometimes, homeowners who wish to abide by agreed-upon community standards—from what colors to paint their homes to whether paid overnight guests are allowed—enter into contracts with each other through homeowners’ associations or restrictive deeds.
These battles over home-sharing don’t just threaten our property rights. They’re part of a larger war to safeguard the American Dream from those who would trade individual liberty for political expediency. Anti-home-sharing rules should be opposed even by those who have never offered their home to an overnight guest or rented a room on HomeAway or Airbnb. At the Goldwater Institute, we’re fighting coast to coast to preserve private property rights because overreaching regulations chip away at one of the most unique and precious American freedoms, what the Constitution’s authors ultimate sought to protect above all else: the pursuit of happiness.
Christina Sandefur is the Executive Vice President at the Goldwater Institute.