When you stay in a hotel in Washington, D.C., your accommodations must meet a long list of inspection standards. Federal law says hotels must have exit signs, working smoke detectors and evacuation plans, plus sprinkler systems in buildings higher than three stories.
But when you stay in a short-term rental through a website like Airbnb, those same standards don't apply.
That may soon change in D.C.
D.C. lawmakers are expected to cast an initial vote in July on a bill that would require health and safety inspections of all short-term rental units. If approved, the bill would establish some of the strictest regulations on Airbnb units in the country.
D.C. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie introduced the bill. He said Airbnb renters should have proof the properties meet basic safety standards -- rather than having to rely only on previous renters' reviews.
"We should take the guessing work out of it and make sure that the District of Columbia DCRA [Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] weighs in on this process, to make sure that basic safety regulations are complied with," he said Wednesday. "It's serious and shouldn't be left up to our guests."
Airbnb says it is reviewing the bill and that safety is their No. 1 one priority.
"The overwhelming majority of our hosts in D.C. share the very home they live in and they agree that they will be in compliance with all applicable laws and other rules and regulations including permits, licenses and registrations," the company said in a statement.
"We run home safety workshops, give out free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and have made it easy for guests to know who to do if there is an emergency by providing them with online safety cards that include important phone numbers, locations of fire extinguishers, fire alarms and emergency exit routes," the statement continued.
If renters report concerns about an Airbnb unit, that online listing can be suspended.
Those safety measures were not enough to prevent a fire in a cabin Medina Abdelkader rented through Airbnb in February 2014. The Toronto resident said she and her partner were sleeping when smoke began to pour out of the woodstove in the cabin in rural Ontario.
Abdelkader, 29, went to open a window, and flames leaped out of the stove.
"I looked back, and the bed that I had just been in was on fire," she said.
Abdelkader and her partner escaped, and she received only a minor burn.
She said she loves Airbnb and has stayed many times in properties she found on the site.
"These are the growing pains of disruption," the consultant and organizational design strategist said.
Still, Abdelkader said she believes Airbnb units should be inspected for safety.
"One of the things that Airbnb does beautifully is that they send a photographer out to take photos of the properties," she said. "I think if you can go to the effort of sending out a photographer, you can go to the effort of sending out someone who can do safety inspections."
The debate over the Short-term Rental Regulation and Affordable Housing Protection Act primarily has focused on how it would affect the city's stock of affordable housing, and the income Airbnb helps D.C. residents earn. Scores of D.C. residents testified at a public hearing in April that the bill would change their neighborhoods and their lives.
The legislation also could have a significant impact on public safety, said Robert Solomon, a manager at the National Fire Protection Association, which sets fire safety standards worldwide.
Because Airbnb units are often inside individuals' private homes, they're often off-limits to inspectors, he said. The bill would "crack the door open so there would be some form of regulation," he said. "By signing on the dotted line, inspectors could come in."
Airbnb hosts in D.C. are supposed to seek permits now. The licensing requirements vary depending on the characteristics of the property. But enforcement is tough; it's hard for DCRA to distinguish between someone staying at a friend's house for a weekend and someone who's paying for an Airbnb rental.
Safety hazards that slip through the cracks can be deadly. A 25-year-old woman and 24-year-old man died in a rowhouse fire near Dupont Circle in apartments that had not been inspected because the rentals were illegal. As News4's reporting revealed, lawsuits filed by the victims' families said the housemates were trapped on the third floor of the house because there was no fire escape and the windows were painted shut.
If the D.C. Airbnb bill passes, DCRA estimates they would need to hire eight new housing inspectors to perform as many as 8,500 additional inspections. Now, DCRA inspectors perform about 1,000 inspections of all kinds annually.
McDuffie is aiming for the Council to hold the first of two votes on the bill in July, before the summer recess, a spokesman said.
Abdelkader, the woman who escaped a fire in an Airbnb unit, said new safety measures could help prevent future accidents.
"This is not a wild card," she said. "It's entirely possible and plausible that these types of safety concerns are going to come up."