There’s a listing on Airbnb that offers much to people in search of temporary DC digs. The house, which promises “Country Elegance in DC,” is “open-concept” and “vibrant,” replete with red brick walls, hardwood floors, and a “darling outdoor space” amenable to wholesome activities like “relaxing in the warmer evenings” and “reminiscing.” The listing includes not one, not two, not three, but six different photos of a chic, modern kitchen flooded with light. The photos show a trio of dish towels arranged just so on a sleek countertop.
The Airbnb sits minutes away from the Capitol, and sets guests back $149 per night. A photo shows hosts Lara & Alex smiling side-by-side, perhaps in satisfied contemplation of their many five-star reviews: “Lara and Alex have a beautiful home in the cutest part of town,” writes one happy customer. “Lara and Alex’s place is perfect!” writes another.
But this home isn’t Lara & Alex’s. Or Lara’s, or Alex’s. Neither are the 59 other Airbnb listings they manage, the single largest active portfolio of homes in DC.
“It’s interesting how guests assume it’s our property,” says Lara Hawketts, the founder and CEO of Home Sweet City, a local Airbnb property management company. “It’s very funny,” she adds with a laugh.
What Hawketts thinks is even funnier, though, is the trajectory that culminated in her presiding over the District’s largest Airbnb empire in the first place. Hawketts, 43, moved to DC from London in January 2009 to help open a DC office for a UK consulting firm. She soon found herself in the process of buying a house, and back in the company of her now-husband Alejandro Fuentes Gonzalez, 49, whom she’d met only months earlier.
By February 2009, just one month after Hawkett’s arrival, the vicissitudes of the Great Recession had claimed her job. Fuentes Gonzalez, a trained chef from Mexico, also became unemployed during that period. To make her mortgage payments—and keep her recently purchased Brookland home—Hawkett decided to list her vacant basement unit on Airbnb, with Fuentes Gonzalez’s help.
“We had no idea what to expect, and it was amazing, because we just got booked solid,” says Hawketts. “Not many people were doing it then, and we were charging amazing amounts of money.”
The Airbnb cash infusion helped keep the couple’s heads above water while they secured new jobs, but they never left the home sharing platform for good. By May 2009, they’d founded Home Sweet City. By 2015, both Hawketts and Fuentes Gonzalez were able to quit their jobs and work for themselves full-time.
Today, Home Sweet City employs five additional staff members and supports a constellation of contractors—from AC repairmen and locksmiths to landscapers and cleaners. By far, the company’s most popular service is the “hands-free,” full-service property management package, whereby property owners hand over their keys and Home Sweet City takes care of the rest. That means staging the home (Hawketts and Fuentes Gonzalez work only with fully furnished houses), facilitating professional photography of the space, listing the unit online, managing guest inquiries and bookings, providing cleaning and linens services, and more.
“There’s a lot to it,” says Hawketts. “It feels like sometimes we are running 60 mini little hotels all over the city. There’s so much involved.”
On any given day, Hawketts and her team can be found waddling through the hundreds of messages they receive from prospective guests the world over (the average on busy days is around 500 messages). Fuentes Gonzalez’s team is more peripatetic. They spend the day driving around the city, checking properties, performing routine maintenance tasks, picking up and dropping off linen, etc… Although they are on call 24-hours a day should a guest need them, Hawketts and Fuentes Gonzalez make time to pick up their two young kids from school in the afternoon. What they like about the work they created for themselves is the flexibility.
In early 2017, the DC Council held a tense hearing on a draft bill regulating home-sharing services. Although the bill got nowhere, it set up the stage for the home-sharing debate that took center stage over the last month.
In late September, it was announced that a revised home-sharing bill written by Chairman Phil Mendelson would be considered by the Council. The proposed legislation would ban property owners from renting out second homes on a short-term basis, and it would limit the number of primary residence rental days to 90 a year if the owner is not physically present inside the home. Although the Council gave unanimous preliminary approval to the bill on October 2, a final vote was unexpectedly delayed two weeks later because of last-minute budgetary concerns.
Few people have followed the Council’s home-sharing tergiversations closer that Hawketts, who’s been a frequent presence at the council building since debate on the issue first began almost two years ago. When it comes to the latest version of the bill under consideration, Hawketts is categorically opposed.
“Well, I think it’s ridiculous, quite honestly. If someone owns a property, they should be able to do what they’d like with it. I think it’s extremely restrictive,” she says. “It’s just very driven by the hotels, and it just seems extremely unfair. It does not make sense.”
Hawketts, though, points out that she in theory supports renewed efforts to regulate the short-term rental space in DC. In fact, members on both sides of the debate tend to agree that regulation of some sort has been a long time coming. DC, after all, is far and away the largest home-sharing market in the area, with an estimated 7,000 rentals listed on Airbnb. Unlike just about every jurisdiction in the Washington region, though, the District has yet to impose any home-sharing regulations.
In Hawketts’ view, regulation should affect “folks who are turning condominiums into mini hotels,” and not operations like hers. “We don’t have any owners that have, like, six homes that we are managing. We don’t tend to like that scenario,” she says. “Often it’s a couple that have both their previous homes and we are managing one of them or it’s a couple that’s overseas and we’re managing their residence here.” Hawketts says Home Sweet City works with members of the military, Foreign Service folks, businesspeople who travel often, professors, PhD students, and more. It’s a lot of what Hawketts calls “transient professionals.” The houses, she says, are a mix of primary and secondary residences.
If Mendelson’s bill passes, it will mean game over, goodnight, and thanks for playing for Home Sweet City. 75 percent of Home Sweet City’s inventory of listings would evaporate, Hawketts says, and layoffs would be inevitable.
“It’s pretty scary. It’s the scariest thing that’s happened to us since I lost my job in 2009,” says Hawketts. “We started this business at a point in our lives when we were under a lot of pressure with having no income, and now here we are again nine years later after we built this successful business and the city is trying to take it away from us. So I feel very sad about it.”
Out of all the DC Airbnb hosts, only relatively few stand to be as affected as Hawketts and Fuentes Gonzalez. According to the DC Policy Center, there are only 40 other hosts on the platform with more than six listings (for comparison, there are more than 2,600 hosts with just one listing). Commercial operators like Home Sweet City make up only about 11 percent of hosts in DC. Their properties, though, make up 30 percent of listings.
Proponents of the Council’s legislation—the hotel industry, community groups, and other critics of services like Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, and FlipKey—argue that the growth of short-term rentals is aggravating a shortage of affordable housing in the city. By curbing the supply of housing units available to long-term DC residents, the thinking goes, services like Airbnb are pushing the cost of rent up, especially in the wealthier neighborhoods where home-sharing tends to be most popular.
Although Hawketts is unconvinced by that argument, she does make one notable concession when asked what would happen to the properties she manages were services like Airbnb not in existence. “That is such a good question,” she says. “I think the majority [of the owners] probably would long-term rent.” But she doesn’t believe that would have much of an impact on the overall rental market, and cites an Airbnb report that says its listings represent a negligibly small percentage of DC’s housing stock.
At the end of the day, whatever the regulatory landscape ends up looking like, Hawketts hopes to adapt and hang on to her business, in whatever shape circumstances require.“‘Who would have thought it?’ We say that all the time. Like, who would have thought we’d be running a business now from this? It’s been a real journey and a lot of hard work and we are so proud of what we’ve built,” she says. “And that’s why it’s so frustrating to feel like it could be taken from us. But not without a fight, that’s for sure.”