How Virginia Lawmakers Are Harassing Short-Term Renters

The sharing economy faces big government obstacles.


Should government agents be able to barge into your home without your permission, to make sure it's being kept up? For three Richmond councilmen the answer may be: yes, if you're a renter. For at least one of them the answer is: yes, even if you own the place.

Last year Jonathan Baliles, Charles Samuels, and Parker Agelasto introduced a paper to start a rental-inspection program in the city. The measure has not gained much momentum, but it hasn't died either. The council held a hearing on it last month. Now there's a related development: A few days ago Style Weekly reported that Richmonders hoping to take in boarders through Airbnb can, to borrow a term from legal jurisprudence, go climb a rope. The UCI world cycling championships take place here in September, and hundreds of homeowners had hoped to make a little coin on the side by renting out rooms. But city rules forbid rentals shorter than 30 days.

Just why the city forbids short-term room rentals isn't intuitively obvious, unless you suspect the hotel interests put the city up to it. After all, you can rent many other things—cars, power tools, bouncy houses—for short periods, and nobody seems to mind. But the debate over rental inspections also offers plenty of reasons for scratching your head.

For starters, why have an inspection program in the first place? The city already has a code enforcement division, and a tenant with a grievance about unsafe or unsanitary conditions already can go to the city for help. (Go to the Code Enforcement page of RichmondGov.com and look for the Citizens' Request System link.) It's been suggested the inspection program is needed because the code-enforcement division isn't sufficiently aggressive. If so, then why not fix that, rather than create a new program out of whole cloth?

Furthermore, thanks to state law the rental-inspection program must be selective. It cannot apply citywide, but must be limited to specific areas where the buildings are old, or blighted, or might one day become blighted. But a landlord can act unscrupulously in a new neighborhood just as easily as she can in an old one. So, for that matter, can a tenant. If a renter knocks a hole in the wall or causes carpets to mold by not cleaning up a spill, is it fair to hold the owner responsible for that?

There's also a privacy concern. Who wants a complete stranger traipsing through his home, rummaging around the kitchen and peeking into the bedroom closets? Renters have a right to refuse entry to an inspector without a warrant, but how many of them know that? Ironically, one of the reasons Agelasto cites for starting an inspection program is that many renters might not know how to report a problem. Requiring landlords to include that information in rental packets would seem far simpler and less intrusive. Maybe they should include copies of the Constitution, too.

Indeed, last year the ACLU of Virginia warned the city of Hampton that its rental-inspection program violated the Constitution because it allowed inspectors to enter a domicile without a warrant. Four years ago Chesterfield killed an inspection proposal for related reasons. (Twenty-one Virginia localities currently have rental inspection programs.)

Another liberties guardian, the Arlington-based Institute for Justice, has filed suits over rental-inspection programs in other states, arguing that thanks to such programs, criminals have more rights than law-abiding citizens: "Before police can get a warrant to search someone's home, they need probable cause of unlawful activity," but rental-inspection programs "allow government officials to barge in on someone's home without probable cause of a crime or code violation."

Supporters of rental-inspection programs contend that they help sustain property values, especially in single-family-home neighborhoods. As one of them put it recently, an "investment class" can buy up houses in a neighborhood and rent them out, "and that rental income is being profited, not reinvested." So the houses deteriorate, dragging down the values of the houses around them. Inspections ensure upkeep.

Perhaps—but then why limit inspections to rental homes? Some homeowners let their own houses deteriorate. Why not inspect them?

"The only reason," Agelasto said last week, "is because that's what the state code says." If the code changed, would he support inspecting non-rental homes as well? "If that's what the homeowners want, sure."

By "what the homeowners want," he is referring to community support. In theory, an inspection program might apply only in those sectors where residents support it. But no one has specified how much support would be needed for the program to apply. More importantly, nowhere does the Constitution say the Fourth Amendment can be nullified by a show of hands.

One other justification for inspections might be the most insidious: Through rehabilitation tax credits and other means, Agelasto says, "a lot of government money" already has gone into the housing market, and "one thing we want to do as a government is protect that investment." From one angle, that looks like good stewardship of public resources. From another, it looks like one dubious government program has created the justification for another.

Funny how often it works out that way.