Our Man in Arlington

June 13, 2017 3:39 PM0 comments

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It may have been the quietest rollout of a tax hike ever in what conservatives call “The People’s Republic of Arlington.”

This spring, the Commissioner of Revenue’s Office got its quacks-like-a-ducks lined up to begin charging a 7.25 percent transient occupancy tax (informally called the hotel tax) to guests staying in short-term rental rooms under the auspices of Internet broker services like Airbnb, Craigslist and Homestay.

“Isn’t it nice there is no outrage?” Commissioner of Revenue Ingrid Morroy told me. “Most people realize we have to be fair. Not just small businesses but people who rent out a room. We assess everyone,” she said. “The focus of my office is fairness.”

Under zoning adjustments the County Board passed in December, hundreds of Arlington hosts who open spare rooms to paying travelers are now required to pay a $60 annual license fee. And like any small business (including freelance writers such as I), they owe county taxes on profits—but only if gross receipts top $10,000.

What’s new is that now, like all Arlington’s commercial hotels, hosts must charge guests the hotel tax. The challenge for the revenue office, Morroy said, was that “we couldn’t find who is renting out” because the brokers protect anonymity. An ad in the county “Citizen” prompted some freelance landlords to come forward; others were reported by tipsters.

State law requires collection of the hotel tax, Morroy noted, so technically these folks were renting illegally. “I’m glad people are aware now.”

Arlington’s hotel and apartment associations worked through the Chamber of Commerce to press for enforcement of tax policy on guests who stay less than 30 days.

“The Arlington Chamber is supportive of an equitable application of the Transient Occupancy Tax,” President & CEO Kate Bates told me. “This new policy will help level the playing field and protect Arlington’s hotel and hospitality industry.”

A glance at the Airbnb website shows more than 300 apartments in Arlington with nightly prices starting at $39, with an average of $157. Its outdated discussion of Arlington taxes advises hosts to alert guests to the tax and either include it in a special offer or have guests pay in person. Increasingly, in some jurisdictions Airbnb collects the tax automatically from hosts’ accounts and remits it to governments. Not yet in Arlington.

Jennifer Frum, who for years has picked up income by renting out her rooms in Aurora Hills, told me she has heard nothing about collection procedures from the San Francisco-based Airbnb. She just received a packet from Arlington’s revenue office that says she must file (online) a monthly form. “I think I grossed a little over $10,000 for my long-term rentals and the same for short-term rentals,” she said. “Having to file every month will be a pain.”

One Arlington-based national political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, is not staying silent.”This isn’t about fairness, this is about rigging the economy in favor of special corporate interests,” said its Virginia Director JC Hernandez. “This tax adds unnecessary burdens on regular folks just trying to make a few extra bucks. This red tape limits opportunities and treats regular people in the sharing economy as if they were a large hotel chain. Instead of piling on taxes and regulations that hurt the little guy, local governments should be looking for ways to remove barriers to success.”

***

Classical music fans said goodbye to a friend last week. WETA’s morning host David Ginder announced that, after 28 years, he is decamping to Colorado Public radio. Accompanying him is his wife, fellow WETA classical host Marilyn Cooley.

The gentle and scholarly Ginder’s last morning shift was June 6, though he hung around for a June 11 evening special “Choral Showcase.”

I “met” him briefly a few years back when I toured the Shirlington studios. While on the air, he waved from behind a glass partition. Our host-listener relationship was much deeper.

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