Despite the rhetoric coming out from moderates in City Hall or from Airbnb itself, illegal short-term rentals are still a problem for San Francisco residents and enforcement is lackluster.
After Mayor Lee vetoed legislation improvements that passed the Board of Supervisors 7-3, it is clear to us at the Tenants Union that rectifying the problem of abuse is going to be a slow process if we rely on City Hall to fix it. Therefore, we offer five steps for citizens to take matters into their own hands. Together we can make illegal hotels unprofitable so hosts choose a permanent tenant over a tourist.
First though, don’t jump to conclusions. Some hosts are legally registered with the city and allowed to rent out ONE property that they live in themselves. With in-law units, the host must actually live in the in-law and not upstairs. You can check for legitimate registration on the Property Information Map. Look for a STR registration permit on the “Planning App” tab.
If a unit is properly registered but is a party pad nightmare for you, you should contact the platform’s complaint department or the owner themselves if you can. Airbnb’s complaint line is: https://www.airbnb.com/neighbors. We have tried to file complaints in the past and found it a futile, exasperating experience, but maybe it has changed. Good luck!
Here are some other options:
- Starve the Beast Through Direct Action
We were contacted by a resident who was annoyed by watching rolling bags every weekend across the street so took matters into their own hands in a commendable way. They started chatting up guests informing them that the unit formerly housed a couple with a young child who was evicted so that they could enjoy their vacation. If you know the story of who was forced out, tell it—but please protect that person’s personal information. And try to locate the old tenant and tell them their old home is being illegally rented. Remedies for aggrieved tenants are in section 3.
We suggest posting critical flyers or slipping anonymous notes under the door. Be polite. Guests aren’t responsible for the ghosts in an apartment but they can be educated to think twice about their unintentional role in displacement and about Airbnb’s arrogant behavior.
Here is a template that Ted Gullicksen created to be printed on 8.5 x 11 sticker paper.
- Properly Report Illegal Hotels
The Office of Short Term Rentals prefers to have the actual listing before opening an investigation. Popular sites to try to locate the problematic buildings are airbnb.com, flipkey, and homeaway (aka vrbo). It is best if you can definitively match the address with either a photo or the host’s name (cross checked with property ownership records.) Please don’t bother OSTR with vague tips they can’t follow up on. In large buildings, they can’t investigate if they don’t know which unit is being rented.
We have some pretty good sleuthing tricks of our own and can help if you email us. But please try to gather the evidence on your own first as we are very busy.
OSTR may also act on alternate evidence that shows ongoing activity. Dated photos of obvious tourist activity (hoards of rolling bags, airport shuttles, signs in entryways that tell guests how to check in or access internet or parking, etc.) You need to be sure that these are paying guests and not relatives visiting for the weekend.
If you are a tenant and worried about retaliation for turning in your landlord or a fellow building dweller, we can report it on your behalf and protect your identity. We file many complaints so there is no way to tell whether we found it ourselves or from a tipster.
The Tenants Union has a policy that we will not act on tips that may get a tenant evicted, however. You should talk to that tenant neighbor yourself and explain the dire eviction threat they face for violating their leases if they continue. You can also email them through the Airbnb website and say something like “I know that you are not registered and this could cause your eviction. If you do not take down this listing I will be forced to report you to the city.” This should spook them enough that no further action will be needed and they will remove the listing. (*Warning this can get you booted from the website as it is a violation of their terms.)
Tenants technically have a get-out-of-jail-free card if their landlord catches them doing STRs without permission. We put an escape hatch into the legislation so that tenants have a chance to cure their lease violation. It was the best we could do for tenants who may not realize Airbnb violates the rules given its popularity and Airbnb’s own marketing. However, it is hard for us to defend sneakily violating one’s lease in order to rent gouge—earn more than one’s monthly rent—in an apartment that may be rent-controlled. We did not fight for the last 45 years to protect and expand rent control so that tenants can turn around and act like greedy landlords, which adds fuel to anti-rent control arguments.
Even with protections for tenants, landlord attorneys can get creative and throw every reason under the sun to evict anyways. Although a STR violation can be cured, tenants may find themselves in a lengthy and expensive eviction defense strategy. Bottom line: Tenants should not engage in short-term rentals unless they have clear written permission from their landlords, have followed the steps to registered with the city, and do not engage in price gouging. The risk is too great for a little quick cash.
If you need help paying rent, may we suggest adding a roommate? This helps someone out in a very tight housing market. Your lease may say otherwise, but it is now your right to add additional roommates thanks to new legislation tenant advocates helped pass.
- Former tenants can sue for Wrongful Eviction
Were you evicted – and now find that your old home is listed on Airbnb? First check the property information map to see if any short-term rental complaints were filed and request a copy of the report from the investigating agent.
NOTE: If you accepted a buyout offer (not the same as relocation money), then you most likely gave up your right to pursue future litigation. Not all buyouts include this provision, but they often do. You may be able to nullify a settlement agreement if you can prove you signed under duress or were mislead, but it is tricky.
A documented “threat” of eviction where you left willingly rather than going through the formal eviction process may also be considered a wrongful eviction. see our website about Eviction Threats.
Court awarded damages can be a powerful deterrent to all landlords thinking about unscrupulous evictions, which benefits all tenants.
- Neighbors have standing to sue
Current law allows neighbors within 100 feet of short-term rental and home owner associations legal standing to pursue violators.
Nonprofit housing organizations like ours used to have a (weak) “Private Right of Action” too — before former Sups. Julie Christensen and Scott Wiener conspired to quietly remove it. We are well positioned to be a more effective enforcement compliment; our interest is citywide and our drop-in clinic is often the source of tips about illegal hotels. If they let us, we could step in while the city fails to keep up with enforcement.
Since we lost that right, we encourage all “neighbors within 100 feet” to pursue cases yourselves. You must wait 135-days after filing a complaint with OSTR for that agency to not act, but it is possible given the molasses-like pace of investigating. The Tenants Union can help you best present your evidence and explain the complaint process. If neighbors started taking this step en masse, we could close these illegal rentals down faster than the OSTR staff can answer the phone.
- Snitch for the common good
Tattletales can be annoying, but evictions and fraud are worse for our city. If the above tips seem like too much work, the least effort is to contribute to the tip line. Go to our friends at http://www.antievictionmappingproject.net/airbnb.html. They investigate tips too. They have the same policy as us…they will not act on information that may lead to a tenant’s eviction. But if you are not sure whether a listing is done by an owner or a tenant, they will research that.
We hope that you will help us crack down on illegal hotels for the sake of tenants, neighbors and to curb speculative prices. We don’t believe sound housing policy should be at the mercy of a few hundred noisy and self-interested “homesharers” backed by a corporation with very deep pockets. A larger coalition of tenants, tenant advocates, homeowners, hotel workers, and even a landlord association agrees that real regulation and enforcement is sorely needed.
Jennifer Fieber has been researching the problem of short-term rentals since 2014 for the Tenants Union. She is now an SFTU staffer.