If you’re one of the dozens of Bethesda or Chevy Chase residents renting out space using Airbnb, you’re violating Montgomery County’s brand new zoning code.
According to County Councilmember Hans Riemer, Council staff attorneys raised the issue after the Council passed the new zoning code last year. It went into effect on Oct. 29, 2014.
Under the new zoning code (which took seven years to rewrite and approve) tenancy of less than a month is prohibited in all residential zones, making it illegal to rent out a room or a home for one night or one weekend — the type of transactions that are happening regularly thanks to popular website Airbnb.
On Tuesday, Riemer introduced a zoning text amendment that would allow “all forms of short-term rental and residential use.”
“People in the county are absolutely going to have strong usage of Airbnb. That’s not surprising considering how this region is such a huge tourist destination,” Riemer said. “We’re not going to run around and try to shut down all Airbnb rentals in Montgomery County. That’s just not going not happen. So I said, ‘Why don’t we just go ahead and fix that part of the zoning code.'”
Sure enough, a quick search of the Airbnb website comes up with 18 rooms in homes or entire homes that are available for rent in Bethesda, ranging from $50-$495 a night.
Inc. Magazine named Airbnb its 2014 company of the year. About 10 million people rented rooms using the San Francisco-based company’s website in 2014. The internet-based incarnation of a bed and breakfast surpassed 800,000 listings worldwide, meaning Airbnb now offers more lodging than any hotel chain in the world.
“When we started the zoning code rewrite seven years ago, there wasn’t such a thing as a sharing economy,” Riemer said. “I don’t think it was on anybody’s mind when we voted on it. The same thing happened with [app-based car service] Uber. You don’t even know there’s an issue and then it turns out everyone is already using the service.”
Cities and governments around the world are running into the same types of problems.
In October, New York’s attorney general released a report that found 72 percent of Airbnb’s 25,500 New York listings violate hotel and housing laws and that hosts owe the state $33 million in unpaid taxes.
Oddly enough, Montgomery County’s old county zoning code (established in 1977) probably allowed for services such as Airbnb, according to Council staff.
The old zoning code had a boarding house use that allowed rooms to be rented out for any duration. Boarding houses are no longer an allowed land use in the new zoning code.
Riemer said he hopes to address the taxing issue in the future.
“This is now a very big part of the hospitality industry,” Riemer said. “Ultimately, our hospitality tax should be applied. Airbnb should remit those taxes to us.”
The zoning text amendment would not get rid of the licensing requirement for all Montgomery County property owners who rent out space.
A public hearing on the zoning text amendment is set for Feb. 24 in Rockville. Riemer expects to get enough Council support to make the change.
“It’s a really simple proposition. Does the local government want to try to make Airbnb illegal? Does Montgomery County want to be the only place in the Washington region where you can’t use Airbnb for your tourist trip? No. It’s sort of inevitable that we’re going to allow this to happen,” Riemer said. “The question is under what terms?”