Virginia Lawmaker Tried To Legalize Airbnb—Then Lobbyists Got Involved

Virginia legislators have been debating whether your house is really yours to use as you please.

The growing popularity of room sharing services like Airbnb has resulted in some legislators trying to open the door for these companies to operate efficiently within the confines of the law, while others keep attempting to regulate them out of competition. On March 2, 2016, the Virginia legislature passed a bill that would allow companies like Airbnb to operate, but with restrictions favored by lobbyists.

Airbnb allows homeowners to temporarily rent out space in their own homes. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “While the platform is not strictly legal in many areas, Virginia saw 133,000 Airbnb stays last year, an increase of 160 percent from the year before.”

Columnist A. Barton Hinkle has weighed in on divergence among state lawmakers on this issue:

The hotel lobby’s effort to stop Airbnb rentals, says Tucker Martin, is like the horse-and-buggy lobby trying to stop the car industry.

Martin — a political consultant doing work for Airbnb, which enables homeowners to make a little extra money by renting out rooms for short periods — could have cited many other examples: Record companies trying to stop music downloads and streaming. Taxi companies trying to stop Uber. Newspapers trying to stop the Internet.

Delegate Chris Peace introduced a bill earlier this year that would solidify the rights of Virginia homeowners to rent out rooms in their homes for limited periods of time. The bill would also preempt local ordinances that ban or overregulate short-term rentals. But this received pushback from Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.

Now, Norment — who has a financial interest worth more than half a million dollars in two hotels and who represents the hotel-heavy Williamsburg area — has inserted language in the Senate version of the state budget to kneecap Peace’s bill by delaying its implementation for a year. Peace says the ploy is unprecedented.

Now, under the substitute bill, reforms can only go into effect if the legislature approves them next year. Earlier this week, both the state house and senate overwhelmingly approved this version, favored by The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association:

The association said the House substitute to the bill includes language that requires “online hosting platforms” to register with the Virginia Department of Taxation, and lets local governments create a registry of rental properties “to ensure basic public safety protections.”

IJ Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath weighed in on the bill:

“Senator Norment’s ploy reflects crony capitalism under the guise of consumer protection,” said McGrath.  “The good news is that consumer-sourced regulations—like Uber and TripAdvisor’s rating systems—are so effective that it is just a matter of time before consumers put government regulators out of business.”

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