There is a tradition in Washington, D.C.: Every four years, as shops start hanging up flags and risers appear up and down Pennsylvania Avenue and the people of this nation begin to bus and train and fly and carpool and patriotically skip toward their capital to see their new president, many D.C. residents get the hell out of town. Not only that: They put their homes and apartments up for rent, and let America’s non-swamp dwellers pay a markup for the privilege of a couple of nights’ stay.
This is how it goes: Return home. Clean up. Count your cash. Complain about the Metro. Rinse; repeat. In 2008, demand for lodging was so extreme that the city’s mayor signed an executive order that temporarily allowed residents to rent out their homes without a business license.
But Friday’s inaugural, and the man at its center, is anything but typical. It’s also not the only major event in town. The Women’s March on Washington, a grassroots protest of the election of Donald Trump, is scheduled for the following day, and there are some indications that it may draw more — perhaps many more — visitors to the city than the inauguration.
Some hypotheses here: First, an awful lot of people will be coming to town, and it’s reasonable to assume that an awful lot of D.C. dwellers stand to make an awful lot of cash off their visits. And second, those would-be temporary landlords probably have some strong opinions about which event — inauguration or march — their would-be renters plan on attending. Basically: Big trouble in little renters’ market.
So as D.C. prepares to welcome its newest permanent (kind of) resident, let’s take the pulse of this sacred Beltway tradition, and find out how the city is welcoming the guests who have come to welcome President Trump.
The presidential inauguration is always a big event. The undying hell-winds of the 2016 campaign have managed to make this controversial — Trump has claimed that crowds are arriving in “record numbers,” to the point that “all the dress shops are sold out in Washington,” statements that are both certifiably untrue — but the simple fact is that people love a good party, and the coronation of the newest leader of the free world certainly qualifies as such. And while the art of estimating crowd size is fuzzy, this much is all but certain: Hundreds of thousands of people will come to town for Trump’s inauguration. (Barack Obama’s inaugurations drew a record 1.8 million attendees in 2008, and 1 million in 2012.)
Another fact: The city of Washington, D.C., and much of its immediate environs is notably liberal; in November, 90.5 percent of Washington voters cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton. Trump came out with just 4.1 percent. With droves of Trump supporters pouring into the city and seeking lodging, it’d be reasonable to expect some friction on the laissez-faire rental market.
“We’re not renting out our home to a Republican,” says Gordon, a resident of Chevy Chase, Maryland, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked that his last name not be printed. Chevy Chase is the neighborhood where Vice President–elect Mike Pence rented a home during the transitional period. Residents responded by covering the neighborhood in pride flags, a criticism of Pence’s record on LGBT issues, drawing national attention.
Gordon posted an ad on Craigslist looking for visitors — with a pointed caveat: “We do not want to be in town for the inauguration of Donald Trump,” he wrote, “but we are happy to give our home to someone who wants to come protest in D.C. for the Women’s March.”
For many visitors, sites like Craigslist, VRBO, and Airbnb are the only option. Many hotels, like the 95-room Jefferson Hotel, are fully booked; as of Thursday morning, 80 percent of hotels in the region were full for the weekend, according to Expedia, with the average remaining room cost sitting at $449. Some hotels have openings, assuming you’re willing to offer up half a Corolla or so: The Willard InterContinental, which sits on the inaugural parade route and where standard rooms went for $2,099 per night with a five-night minimum over inauguration weekend (compared to $208 per night the following weekend), still had some availability.
Those with smaller budgets have turned to rental services: On Airbnb, lodging costs were multiples of what they usually are; the company predicted that as many as 10,000 people would use the service in D.C. this week. Staying in people’s homes, however, raises new issues — namely, the personal concerns of the hosts.
Some ads, especially those from D.C.’s class of semi-professional hosts — who pulled in more than $50 million last year on Airbnb alone — show a mercenary’s disinterest in the proclivities of guests: “Room available for Inauguration/Women’s March for one or few people,” “Inauguration/Women’s March 1 Bedroom Apartment,” “Need a house for the Inauguration or Women’s March?” But what about hosts who have never let others stay in their homes before?
For most, the concerns with a possible renter were quotidian: stolen or broken items, unauthorized parties, angry neighbors. Yet for others, like Christina, who works at the Environmental Protection Agency and has a home in Alexandria, Virginia, any issues were political. “If you’re in town to protest drumpf, this is for you!” her Craigslist ad read.
“I really wanted to make sure that people who wanted to come for it had a place that they could stay,” Christina says. “I just wanted to help out for the cause.”
In keeping with D.C.’s voting tendencies, the vast majority of politically specific ads seemed to be targeted toward those on the left. But not all: “Thanks for looking,” read an ad for a spot in Annandale, Virginia. “Let’s MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Regardless of a poster’s affiliation, not everyone appreciated the politicization of this market. “Does this come with a safe space and all the safety pins I need?” one person responded to Christina.
“I ignored them,” she says. “There’s no point in engaging.”
For others like Gordon, though, the whole point of renting their homes was to serve as a form of protest.
“We couldn’t tolerate being here for inauguration, so we decided to get the hell out of town,” he says, noting that he and his partner had never rented out their home before this week, and have no intention of doing so again. “We’re interested in renting to women coming to town for the march.”
“It’s a counterpoint to the Trump inauguration,” he says.