Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpCome January — just in time for Inauguration — you, too, can run a hotel in Arlington.

Well, not the decked out full-Trump, but a “short-term rental” of rooms in your own home- better known under brand-names Airbnb, Craigslist and HomeAway.

More than 1,000 Arlington homeowners have been doing it as part of the “sharing economy,” even though it’s illegal under the zoning laws. On Dec. 10, the County Board voted 4-1 to let those scofflaw part-time landlords come in from the cold.

To enthusiasts, using apps to recruit boarders is great way for “just folks” to make extra money and help out-of-towners. Guests get a cheap “live with the locals” experience in neighborhoods away from the “hotel hegemony” bustle.

But there’s resistance, I learned at County Board member Katie Cristol’s Dec. 5 talk to the Leeway Overlee Civic Association, and from 14 citizens who spoke Saturday during full board debate.

The plan to allow but regulate short rentals via registration got moving in October. It involved surveys, community meetings, staff study and input from the Planning Board, Civic Federation, Chamber of Commerce, and commissions on Transportation, Aging and Economic Development.

Time was short. The solons in Richmond last session voted to prevent localities from regulating Airbnb and the like, but Gov. Terry McAuliffe postponed it pending a study. Arlington hopes to “inform” the powerful General Assembly in January.

Airbnb, meanwhile, after battling governments in New York and Austin, Texas, settled in court and accepted a more collaborative approach – one that would protect its business model but avoid handing scarce affordable housing to investors seeking profit from high-turnover guests.

Arlington noted regulatory approaches in San Francisco, Portland, Denver (and most recently, New Orleans) and teamed up with Charlottesville, Roanoke and Botecourt County to prepare a registration plan. The idea is “not to quash but enable,” Cristol said. Airbnb representative William Burns, saying his 740 Arlington clients make an average of $5,600 a year, backed the proposal as “balanced.”

As of Dec. 31, short-term rentals will be permitted as “accessory homestays,” if the unit is the homeowners’ primary residence (185 days a year). The owner simply registers online (or by U.S. mail). Enforcement—notoriously difficult—will be passive, meaning only if your neighbors complain two or three times about noise or trash will county staff confront you. (A small registration fee is under consideration to cover costs.)

What’s not to like? “Loss of neighborhood familiarity,” iffy insurance and liability, came the complaints, and the notion that strangers are suddenly equipped with your neighbor’s house keys.

Speakers described calling police after hearing six neighboring Airbnb guests arguing on a porch at midnight. “They all have cars and boyfriends, and the streets look like a parking lot,” said another. “Each neighborhood has its own character and vibe,” a man said, which “will likely change for the worse.”

One big unresolved issue is whether the transient occupancy tax paid by hotel owners would apply (Airbnb has a mechanism for collecting such taxes). Board member John Vihstadt mentioned the T-word. (Though industry reps have not weighed in, Arlington’s revenue commissioner is likely to at budget time.)

Vihstadt’s objections are based not on fear that short rentals destabilize neighborhoods. The process is “too rushed and overreaches,” he said. He called for embracing the sharing economy with a “more flexible, lighter hand of government.”

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“Thanks, Arlington, for 38 great years” reads the banner at the now-abandoned Lee-Lex (auto) Service Center at N. Lexington Street and Lee Highway.

Actually, the one-time gas station has been there under different management since the 1950s. That was when budding country-pop singer Jimmy Dean—famous for the 1961 No. 1 hit “Big Bad John” and later as a brand of sausage—lived just down the block.

Dean, who made his entertainment chops up Lee Highway at radio station WARL, hung out at Lee-Lex when it was a Gulf station.