Set back from the leafy, tree-lined street on a quiet block in Chevy Chase, D.C., sits a picturesque brick colonial with a bright-red door. The homeowners, Lara Hawketts and Alejandro (Alex) Fuentes Gonzalez live here with their two young daughters and their senior beagle, George. At a glance, the couple, both immigrants – Lara hailing from the U.K. and Alex from Mexico – seem to have built their own version of the American Dream right here in the nation’s capital.
Like so many others, Lara, a business development executive, and Alex, a chef, found themselves out of work when the Great Recession hit. With looming mortgage payments on their then newly purchased Brookland home, the entrepreneurial couple tried their hand at home sharing, listing their basement apartment on Airbnb. Though they were both able to secure new jobs in their respective fields, the travel demands of Lara’s new role and the late night hours of Alex’s job made balancing a growing family untenable.
With natural business acumen and a knack for hospitality, the couple decided to expand their home sharing repertoire. In May of 2009, they founded Home Sweet City, a property management company that offers turnkey services for homeowners in and around the District. From linens and laundry to cleaning and communication, Lara and Alex cover it all so that homeowners who want to earn extra income from home sharing can maximize their rental income without having to be on site.
Their clientele are of a distinctly D.C. stripe. “Our typical clients are D.C. homeowners who are out of town for long periods of time, but do not want to sell their homes – military, foreign service, public service, professors,” Lara explained. With inconsistent and unforeseeable schedules, many of their clients simply can’t consider long-term renters.
Over time, their fledgling business has grown. Lara and Alex moved out of their starter home in Brookland and now operate their business out of their Chevy Chase home. With five employees on payroll and an entire ecosystem of other D.C. small businesses who rely on the fully operational machine of Home Sweet City to keep them afloat financially, the couple hedged their bets on the District of Columbia continuing to thrive on the sharing economy.
“We are creating a lot of jobs for people. We have two sets of cleaning companies who work exclusively with us and each company has about nine people who work for them. We have a local guy who cuts the grass for all the properties, a locksmith, a company who does all the heating and cooling. We support local small businesses trying to make a living in D.C.”
Alejandro Fuentes Gonzalez
The couple has aspirations for their business that go far beyond the bottom line. “We want to have a charitable part of Home Sweet City where we donate food that’s left behind by guests,” Lara explained. “And we’d like to offer free nights to disabled veterans who can’t afford to come here otherwise,” Alex added.
Yet, all of the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into building Home Sweet City could be for naught if D.C. Council passes a hotel-backed bill that would restrict D.C. homeowners from sharing their vacant homes for more than 90 days per year. Should the bill pass, many of the homeowners whose properties they manage, the couple reports, would likely end up selling their homes, threatening the future of Home Sweet City and the entrepreneurial ecosystem it’s built over the years.
“We are the people, not the hotels. We are a small business. We worry about being able to earn enough to survive, to afford to stay in D.C. and to afford to pay the people we employ. Regulation isn’t wrong, just make it fair.”
Alejandro Fuentes Gonzalez
Ten years ago, two immigrants met in D.C., fell in love, adopted a cute dog, bought a house in the city, started a family and started a business that has gone on to create jobs for other Washingtonians. Yet, the big hotels could blow their proverbial house down as quickly as D.C. Council says “aye.”