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.