2016 | News

County Council Airbnb Hearing Generates Debate Over West Bank Settlements

Group of county residents urges council members against setting up legal framework for room-renting service because of company's controversial West Bank listings

A sampling of Bethesda Airbnb listings available Wednesday morning

Airbnb

Montgomery County Council members likely anticipated many of the complaints heard Tuesday night about an effort to legalize and regulate room-renting service Airbnb—including concerns about losing on-street parking spaces and protecting single-family neighborhoods from rowdy guests.

However, they probably didn’t anticipate the proposals—a zoning code change and bill to create a county licensing process for the rentals—would spur a debate on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but this is a company that is unfortunately profiting off something that is actually quite close to a war crime,” said Saqib Ali, a Gaithersburg resident, former state delegate and leader of the successful campaign to get Montgomery County Public Schools to close school for students on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Ali and three other county residents testified during Tuesday’s council public hearing that the council shouldn’t go forward with regulating Airbnb and other online room rental services such as HomeAway and Loft because doing so would be a tacit endorsement of Airbnb, the San Francisco-based company that has come under fire recently for West Bank listings on its website by Jewish settlers.

“I’m concerned that we’re considering essentially giving a stamp of approval to a business that profits off illegal settlements in violation of human rights for Palestinians,” said Silver Spring resident Alison Glick, who has a Palestinian-American daughter. “Yes, it’s a long way away but there are business ethics to consider. What signal does it give to Montgomery County residents if we essentially allow them to operate in our community?”

Council member Hans Riemer proposed the zoning text amendment and licensing bill in February to build a “legal framework” for Airbnb users in the county.

Despite plenty of Airbnb listings in the county—council President Nancy Floreen said she’s seen as many as 500 on the company’s website–the county’s zoning code for traditional bed and breakfast establishments technically makes the short-term stays illegal.

The county doesn’t enforce the zoning code on Airbnb users. Last year, even though the zoning issue remained, the county followed many other jurisdictions by enacting a local tax of 7 percent of the cost of any rental in the county through Airbnb and similar websites.

Riemer said after Tuesday’s hearing he plans to forge ahead on the proposals, despite the complaints about Airbnb’s West Bank listings.

“We are trying to create a local law that is realistic and that we can enforce,” Riemer said. “I see where they’re coming from, but I think our challenge here is figuring out what’s the legal framework we want for these companies.”

Ali said he recently created a group called Marylanders for BDS, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel that has compared the country’s occupation of the West Bank to South African apartheid. The movement has also faced criticism that it’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

“I am a Jew and I am appalled at the attacks on Israel,” said North Bethesda resident Paula Bienenfeld at Tuesday’s hearing, in an apparently unscripted part of her testimony that came after Ali and Glick spoke. “Settlements are by no means war crimes and as a Jew, I certainly know what war crimes are. I’d point out that just today, civilians were attacked in Israel and an American was murdered.”

Bienenfeld, who was representing the Montgomery County Civic Federation, then went on to explain the federation’s opposition to Riemer’s proposals on the grounds they were too hastily introduced and would harm neighborhoods.

Representatives of at least seven other neighborhood and civic groups expressed similar reasons for opposing the proposals.

“This proposal makes a mockery of local zoning,” said Andy Harney, the manager of Chevy Chase Village Section 3. “We could conceivably transform whole neighborhoods into streets of boarding houses with minimal oversight and regulation, bringing down property values, destroying the very definition of a single-family home.”

Riemer, who has been working on the issue for more than a year, said some of those civic and neighborhood group leaders seemed to misunderstand the purpose of the proposed legislation, which would actually limit the number of Airbnb guests at one property to five people or one family of any size. It would also require that a property listed on Airbnb be the primary residence of its owner, an attempt to avoid year-round short-term rental homes and condos.

“If we don’t pass legislation, isn’t it worse? If we don’t like [Airbnb], it seems like we’d want to pass legislation to create a framework to regulate it,” Riemer said. “People may not have realistic expectations about what we can do. I think Airbnb would be happy if we just don’t pass a bill. The status quo is great for them.”

Riemer said he is open to some amendments, including stricter regulations to preserve parking spaces for full-time residents in neighborhoods. The bill and zoning text amendment aren’t expected to go to a council committee for review until June.

“Right now, if you were to use the Internet, you would find a number of units available for short-term rentals in Montgomery County,” Floreen said. “So this is a reality that we’re dealing with today, one way or the other.”