By Tim Redmond
MAY 7, 2014 — I’ve been complaining (a bit) about the legislation by Sup. David Chiu on Airbnb. I’ve been critical (a bit) about the City Attorney’s Office cracking down on landlords who abuse the service, but not on Airbnb itself. But I’ve been letting entirely off the hook another agency that has utterly dropped the ball on the hotelization of San Francisco neighborhoods.
That’s the San Francisco Planning Department, which has known about the problem for years and has done virtually nothing to enforce its own zoning laws that ban the use of short-term rentals anywhere in the city and limit commercial activity in residential areas.
In fact, back in 2011 attorney Steve Williams presented the Planning Commission with evidence that more than 6,000 units in the city were illegally used as hotels – and he learned that the department has done exactly five (5) abatement actions.
I’ve asked Planning Director John Rahaim to tell me how many actions have been taken since then, but he hasn’t responded. I can say from the lack of action and the continued expansion of companies like Airbnb that the enforcement effort has been limited at best. UPDATE: Gina Simi at City Planning just told me that the department has had 120 active cases since 2012, 54 have been abated and 66 are active. That’s out of what is now as many as 15,000 illegal rentals.
The 2011 story starts with neighbors in the 3100 block of Gough Street opposing plans by the owner of 3139 Gough to add two stories to a residential building, essentially doubling its size. The group, represented by Williams, argued that the project was too big, bulky, tall, etc.
But in the process, Williams told the commission some other facts about the building. The owners had done an Ellis Act eviction, cleared out the tenants, and were using it, according to his brief to the commission, as a tourist hotel.
“The project site was listed as for rent on two different websites; Flipkey and VRBO, which is vacation rental by owner. And it was only after the filing of the D.R.’s in this instance that this sight was removed from the website. So, while the project was being pursued it was still up and for rent before the neighbors filed the discretionary reviews. The units were listed as available through the holiday season and for most of 2012 before it was taken down from the website, one of the neighbors had the foresight to print out.
It is attached as exhibit b. and it rented for $250 a night or $1,600 for five nights. It provides the description of what was being offered and there are some testimonials in there from people who are vowing to return to rent it again.
And of course, the neighbors were well aware of the rentals that were going on because they met. They met foreign tourists. They meet people who didn’t belong in the neighborhood who were staying in the building.”
Even though any one of us could get on the computer right now and see 1,000 illegal rentals in the city and I was able to go on — I was surprised at the extent of this issue. I was able to go online and print out 32 units I attached as exhibit two that are within two blocks of this site that are currently available. And that was on just one of these websites. And there’s at least a dozen of these particular websites.
We’re talking about thousand of housing units, these illegal rentals. And the department after I got the case and started investigating it. I did a sunshine ordinance request on the department to find out what kind of enforcement’s going on.
Virtually zero. The department has five open enforcement cases, five. And I reviewed those files. Two of them are old B and B cases from the 1980’s and the 1990’s. And the others arose strictly because of neighborhood complaints. Rowdy parties, tourists that are too loud or carrying on.
None of those complaints are being pursued in any meaningful way. So it’s up to this commission to stop the flood of the loss of these rentals. And this is a contemporary problem that’s going on right as we speak. When one of these cases finally finds itself in front of you don’t ignore it. Require a deeper investigation; make a statement that the commission is concerned about this crucial issue.
So the Planning Department and the Commission were on notice three years ago that this was a serious problem. An attorney representing a neighborhood group presented evidence that as many as 6,000 San Francisco apartments were illegally rented out as tourist hotel rooms.
And nothing happened.
“The Department could file thousands of violations notices tomorrow, but for unknown reasons chooses not to do so while thousands of units are lost. … Such an attitude is disturbing but seems to be policy at the Department. At a minimum, a hotel tax should be collected and a Notice of Special Restrictions should be placed on the building.”
None of the commissioners gave much in the way of a response, except for Gwen Borden, who said, in essence, that she saw nothing wrong with what was going on. “I have had lots of friends who have rented out their places when they have gone on vacation to Europe, because people who are not rich often do that to cover costs and pay for their vacation,” she said.
“Why does the Planning Department and Planning Commission get a free pass on this mess?” Williams asked. “We have laws on the books, the cases have been brought to the Department and Commission’s attention, and they ignored it.”