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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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UncategorizedDoes Airbnb have an ADA problem?

Does Airbnb have an ADA problem?


By Tim Redmond

AUG. 7, 2014 — The world of the “sharing economy,’ like the world of tech workers, tends to be young, white, college educated, and relatively well off. Poor people take traditional cabs more than Uber or Lyft in part because the old-fashioned taxis are more likely (since the law requires it) to service areas outside of the hip neighborhood.

None of that’s news to anyone in San Francisco.

But there’s another element that’s been largely overlooked. The sharing economy is set up for people who are healthy and able-bodied.

There aren’t many wheelchair-capable Lyft cars. And, according to longtime disability rights activist Bob Planthold, Airbnb and VRBO aren’t doing much for the disabled community, either.

In fact, in a letter he sent to the Planning Commission in advance of today’s hearing raising a whole lot of issues about short-term rentals that have been largely missing from the debate and the agenda and that aren’t addressed in the pending legislation.

I’m just going to quote the whole thing:

So much of the advocacy rhetoric about the Airbnb legislation focusses on making money that nobody in city government — whether the sponsoring Supervisor or Planning staff or legal counsel — has been willing to admit that Airbnb and many other so-called “sharing economy” companies violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Airbnb, et al. are a “public accommodation, as per the A.D.A. All these so-called “sharing economy” companies should have been fully accessible, in their communications and in provision of services, from the very beginning of their corporate life.

Yet, Airbnb’s website is NOT accessible. One person who is blind uses the “Jaws” screenreader software. That person wanted to list availability of space through Airbnb, but couldn’t.

The disability problems are more than just the inability of some who are blind to get information from or to list share-able housing on the Airbnb website.

The website also doesn’t list whether the listed housing is accessible, or not. Failure to provide such information deters people with disabilities from equally being able to access these home-sharing services, even if websites are finally made accessible.

Airbnb, the sponsoring Supervisor, Planning staff, and legal counsel all act and opine as if they are living in 1989 — in a year prior to passage of the A.D.A.

Somehow, they have both personally and professionally avoided responding to or acknowledging this federal civil rights law, even though it is over 1/4 of a century old.

It’s not enough to now say that past neglect is acceptable; that’s hardly a reflection of “San Francisco values.” How would elected officials and Planning staff respond to any legislation that said home-sharing services would only be available to those born in the US or born in SF?

The bias and discrimination in such a scenario is so evident that such hypothetical legislation would be D.O.A. Why, then, is this proposed legislation acceptable?

Have all principles of fairness, inclusiveness, diversity, and equity been abandoned in favor of simply making $$ — no matter what the social cost?

There are other disability-affecting factors that this legislation ignores.

There is no background check on the so-called “guests.”

People with disabilities and seniors need to know they can quickly, easily, and safely exit their building, in case of an emergency. If landlords don’t know about –and don’t have the opportunity to screen –Airbnb occupants, then seniors and people with disabilities won’t know that strangers will have keys to the building .

Vulnerable residents such as these two constituencies — along with single-parent families and pregnant women — might be subject to “guests” who ignore fire safety rules or even molest/assault vulnerable tenants.

The secrecy this legislation allows is contrary to good public policy.

Since this is the first hearing before Planning, please consider scheduling another hearing, to allow more time to inquire about all the various factors raised by both opponents and proponents.

Hmmm. I bet that Airbnb and VRBO will do what the faux-cab companies do, and say that they aren’t responsible since all they do is connect individuals who make their own transactions. But they actively market the services, both to users and “hosts,” and unless the hosts are following the law, then the companies are using a business model based on illegal activity.

And I’m not an ADA lawyer, of course, but the law makes exceptions for private homes used as hotels only under certain limited circumstances, requiring accessibility for

(1) An inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of the establishment as the residence of the proprietor

Clearly, some Airbnb and VRBO places are not owner-occupied. I don’t know how this will fall out legally, but it’s another example of how these “disruptive” technologies move forward without regard for whether they are following laws that were well established, for good reason.

Should be a fascinating hearing.


Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. Still, in 2017, this is a truly annoying problem for us. While I have stayed in AirBnB places by myself, my husband cannot join me because he must use power wheelchair. He needs to be able to get in and out of the lodging and he needs in-room and bathroom access. For hotels, those amenities are always listed but not for AirBnB. Why have they not yet been taken to court by the DOJ? Maybe it’s time I file a complaint.

  2. Eleen, you sound bitter. The truth is that I really don’t care either way. Rent control drives up rents and NIMBY land use rules drive up RE values. I do just fine.

    but my way of giving back is to try and show other folks how the very policies that they think protects them actually makes their situation worse. If rent control was going to deliver cheap housing to SF, don’t you think it would have done that by now?

    By my calculation, rents are now about 12 times what they were when rent control was passed in 1979.

    But my point, since you clearly didn’t get it, was that if landlords “knew the deal” when they bought, then so did tenants. And if landlords are therefore estopped from whining when they cannot raise the rent, then tenants are estopped from whining when they get Ellised to the curb.

    Got a problem with equity?

  3. Well Duh! Your point being?

    If you got cut by this? – boo hoo – Do you want a medal?

    The reality is that the voters of San Francisco will continue to elect politicians and pass measures through a stiff lens of social justice as they always have.

    They’ll also continue to pressure whatever yo-yo they elected to do as they see fit.

    If i’m pointing out the obvious here, stop me – but the “bleeding heart” liberals and social justice warriors of San Francisco outnumber every angry would-be property magnate.

    They will happily live out the contradictions and hypocrisies while drinking fine wine and dining in some of the best restaurants in the world. Because they can and should.

    Their sympathy, dollars and support will always fall with the downtrodden, broke, the poor, the disabled because at that is who they wish to identify with at their core.

    This is small town politics – it’s just played on an expensive stage – like fancy dinner theater.

    Take a seat or take the stage.

  4. I gave some other examples of internet-based commerce to show how it is not easy for a government, and particularly a municipality, to take action against a foreign-based website. The DOJ or State Department MIGHT be successful at that, but the city of SF has no chance.

    The US government has been trying to shut down online poker sites for years with no success – many are base in East Europe. While MyRedBook was domiciled in Mauritius.

    IOW, these businesses do not need a physical location and if we drive them to a location where we have no jurisdiction, we lose any semblance of control that we think we have, so better to work with them as Chiu is trying to do.

    In the end, the only party the city can go after is the host, because they and their property or rental are in the city. but somehow all the criticism seems to be about Airbnb and not the individuals who are allegedly breaking the law.

    Oh, and no, I am not convinced that short-term lets are illegal as some claim. Unless you know otherwise, no court has ruled on that and there has been as close to zero enforcement as makes no odds.

    Thousands of people in SF use these services, both as hosts and guests, and have good experiences. If some owners evict tenants and then re-rent the units, that is already illegal. But home-sharing is 99% folks like me doing lets here and there, causing no harm. I’ve read nothing here that will make me stop.

    Her’s an idea. If you want more long-term rentals offered by owners, why not make that business more attractive instead of trying to outlaw all alternative uses for a biulding?

  5. By that argument, Eleen, every tenant who has rented a place in SF since 1985 does so knowing about the Ellis Act and therefore cannot reasonably complain when they are evicted.

    Cuts both ways.

  6. The contradictions here are too obvious to point out but…

    Why should those who invested willingly, or inherited or were coaxed into ill-advised real-estate investments deserve a break from those on the capital positive side of this arrangement?

    It’s almost like you’re suggesting there should be one rule for you and a different set of rules for everyone else?

  7. All markets are subject to manipulation in capitalism. Surely S.F.’s housing market was manipulated when high tech companies were given a tax break. Markets are NOT efficient, easily manipulated and in need of policy intervention such as rent control. — Perhaps you should stop parroting current economic theory and broaden your horizons. For a dose of reality (not theory) try reading “Flash Boys” by Michael Lewis or better yet “Wheels of Fortune: The History of Speculation from Scandal to Respectability” by Charles R. Geisst.

  8. You seem to be more au fait with the the illegal internet “commerce” – specifically prostitution (sexual slavery) and gambling than most.

    You’re not denying the civil criminality of the matter either – so you’re a progressive at heart. Refreshing to see.

    Not sure how the analogy with poker sites or redbook is relevant – one would hope illegal gambling has nothing to do with the “disruptive”, “sharing economy”… although there are many reports that airbnb is being “used” by pimps to exploit and expand their human slave trade. Are you condoning that?

    “Driving these entities offshore, as happened with the online poker sites, helps nobody.”

    There is clearly nothing stopping local authorities from shutting down offshore based civil / criminal enterprises – as has been demonstrated time and time again. You may be conflating perceptual vs actual market demand.

    Lastly – not sure AirBnb would feel that their business should be categorized the same as an online poker or prostitution… but you seem to believe there’s a logical legal argument here for all of the above.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on legalized online gambling and prostitution… please.

  9. As for whether these online companies are just middleman or engaged in illegal activity directly, I wish the City Attorney would go after VRBO. VRBO regularly sends staff to book stays and then report anonymously on the site. A sort of quality control. That means they are directly involved in renting apartments which they know lack permits, insurance and in violation of 41A. They cannot plead innocence.

  10. Furthermore, they’ve created a system which fails to direct affordable housing resources toward those who can actually demonstrate need. Far too many high income, able-bodied people are incentivized to hoard rental housing.

  11. After 35 years of demonstrable policy failure, the Redmond/Gullicksen clique really only have two face-saving tactics left.

    The first is to try and find a group of people to demonize, in classical class-warfare terms. In recent years they have tried to blame landlords, developers, speculators, bankers, tech workers, shuttle buses but all to no avail. Without a class of people to credibly blame, the blame can only be theirs.

    The second is a derivative of the first, and that is to play the “if only” game. Rent control would work if only there were no Ellis, or if only there were no Costa-Hawkins and we passed vacancy control, or if only there were no Airbnb, or if only TIC formations were not beyond city jurisdiction, and so on.

    The real problem with rent control, and all forms of price control, is well known and has been known by economists for decades. And that is that price controls only ever work in the short-term, in times of war, emergency or natural disaster. In the long-term, artificial control of prices (and therefore profits) invariably causes a suppression of supply, as investors abandon the controlled business and reinvest in uncontrolled business (like commercial RE or elsewhere in the Bay Area, or further afield).

    And when supply is suppressed, then rents rise – exactly what has been happening for 35 years. But the advocates of rent control have never thought this through and, at this point, they are too vested in their failed experiment to ever admit that they have done far more harm than good to the very people they claim to care about.

    Luckily, they own SF RE themselves and so have done just fine, thank you.

  12. Redmond, Guilicksen, et al are part of a San Francisco that is quickly fading away. Their obsession with AirBnB is part of a desperate last stand to defend a world view which is both irrelevant and ineffective.

  13. You assume that this is a criminal matter. But the alleged prohibition against short-term lets is in the City’s Administrative Code. Remedies for that would normally be civil, not criminal. Nobody thinks that tenants who do short-term sublets should be arrested and hauled away to 850 in cuffs.

    As for going after Airbnb for solicitation, that would be in the same category as going after websites that allow escorts to advertize. And although MyRedBook recently got closed down, that was for trafficking offenses and not just garden variety escorts advertizing. So there is plenty of precedent for not prosecuting intermediaries.

    And of course there is the other problem cited. What is Airbnb or equivalent were based in Switzerland? There would be nothing the city could do anyway except beg the DOJ or State Department to get involved. Driving these entities offshore, as happened with the online poker sites, helps nobody.

  14. Not to get into semantics or semiotics of your intentions but…

    “In the United States, solicitation is the name of a crime, an inchoate offense that consists of a person offering money or inducing another to commit a crime with the specific intent that the person solicited commit the crime.”

  15. David, I accept your point that there are problems where the Airbnb host is a tenant, who is therefore effectively stealing rent from his or her landlord, and of course violating their lease.

    I suppose, in your one example, if the tenant is using the cash to save for a deposit to buy a home, the landlord might look kindly upon that on the assumption that he will get a vacancy sooner rather than later. And therefore approve the subletting. But most would not.

    And I suspect the one thing that stops the Redmonds of this city from becoming even more obsessive in their zeal is that they know that prosecuting tenants for doing this would lead to their eviction.

    One correction there though. Your last statement that “Airbnb is illegal” is false. The commercial entity itself is perfectly legal. The criticism is more that they might be aiding and abetting illegal activity on the part of SF hosts, in the same way that CraigsList does when it allows short-term SF lets to be posted on its site. Both those websites are domiciled in SF but there are other servers and services that are based elsewhere and maybe out of the country. So SF has to ultimately go after the hosts and not the intermediary on jurisdictional grounds.

    Moreover, you can arrange longer term lets through Airbnb. I did a 3-month let to a European once and that is perfectly legal in any event.

    But if you look at why Redmond opposes Airbnb, apart from the Conway/Lee factor which we can safely relegate to the status of blind prejudice, his real objection is that Airbnb removes long-term rental units from the market. But that is hardly true at all. That would mean a regular landlord does this as an alternative to long-term rentals. And speaking as a SF landlord, i am totally done with long-term lets and will never do another one.

    So either I Airbnb my units or I sell them as TICs. Either way, those units are lost forever as long-term rentals because of the rent laws that people like Redmond have foisted on us. Those units are lost because of rent control and not because of airbnb.

  16. Sam, “paranoia about a harmless home-sharing enterprise” is a stretch. AirBnB has the potential to drastically “disrupt” the housing market in SF… and not all disruption is groovy. There are a few huge winners and lots of losers. Two anecdotes from my stint as an Uber-Sidecar driver:

    One young woman passenger boasted that she’d moved out of her highrise 1bdr to AirBnB. She was now “couch surfing” and selling her place at $250 nightly. She said, “Ten nights and I break even on the rent. Everything else is gravy! And it’s never empty.”

    I asked, “How do you keep it clean?,” expecting she hired a maid service (HomeJoy?) to change the sheets and restock the toilet paper. With $5000 gross monthly profit (30 x $250= $7500 – $2500 rent = $5000 gross profit). She said, “A maid? Hell no. I clean it myself.” So, not only is this young twit illegally subletting, she’s also taking a fractional part of a union job from hotel maid, probably Latino.

    I said, “What happens if the landlord finds out?” She said, “He already knows. And I’m saving up for a deposit on another apartment.”

    Another gay male passenger with a flat in the Mission off Valencia told me that he and his lover made $30K net (yes, net) from renting one of three bedrooms to Euro tourists. He said, “They are out all day, get exhausted and just come home to crash. So we pay the rent off the one room and each have $15K fun money.” Location, location, location. I asked, “What about the landlord?” He replied, “I was really worried the first 9 months. Then I told him and he was okay with it.”

    On the basis of just two anecdotes, AirBnB is NOT harmless. And… it’s illegal.

  17. Redmond, that’s three hit pieces on Airbnb this week alone? Why on earth have you become so obsessed with something as simple as a few people temporarily sharing their home with a visitor?

    The ADA thing is a total red herring because the most SF homes are not ADA-compliant. Unless you are arguing to retro-fit every SF home so that there are no walk-up’s (and if so, who pays?) then your argument is totally missing the point. Lots of long-term rentals aren’t ADA-complaint. Why are you silent on that?

    Anyone who is disabled takes their disability into account when they plan a visit or vacation. they don’t need you hijacking their disability for political and ideological ends.

    Your paranoia about a harmless home-sharing enterprise never made little sense. But what confuses me the most is why you think, even if every single short-term let could be effectively banned (and enforcement of that is as impossible as it is undesirable) that all those owners would somehow decide to take on long-term tenants again?

    That’s a myth. Most of us will NEVER AGAIN take on a long-term tenant, because of rent control. And the more Ellis gets tightened, the less vacant units will be re-rented. Your policies have killed the SF long-term rental market and now you want to kill vacation lets as well?

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