By Tim Redmond
AUG. 5, 2014 — The biggest issue for the San Francisco Planning Commission Thursday might lurk in the weeds behind all of the details of Sup. David Chiu’s Airbnb ordinance. The hidden question: Who, exactly, is going to enforce this law – and how is that going to happen?
There have been people illegally subletting apartments long before Airbnb and VRBO. Craigslist made it possible years ago to find out-of-town visitors who want to rent your place for a short period. For the most part, nobody noticed; it was small-time stuff.
But once these big companies, with investors and someday stockholders to please, decided to turn a low-level activity into a high-growth business, it got out of control quickly.
Problem is, the City Planning Department has never been a very good police agency – and was somewhere between oblivious, overwhelmed, and willfully complicit as the explosive problem of illegal short-term rentals drove up prices and threatened the city’s affordable housing stock.
As we’ve reported, the planners knew there was a problem several years ago – but for the most part, did nothing. That’s because the department was operating as if this crisis was still in the Craiglist era – if nobody complained, then nothing was wrong.
The complaint-driven process was, and is, utterly inadequate for what is now a huge illicit business in the city. It’s as if the Police Department decided only to respond to cell-phone or bicycle thefts if somebody filed a written complaint. Any law-enforcement agency knows you have to be pro-active with this stuff, which is why the cops now have “bait bikes” to nab organized thieving rings and the district attorney is working to get the cell phone companies to install “kill switches.”
Bait bikes, of course, tend to target the less-well-off. Airbnb enforcement would target some very wealthy people (and a $10 billion corporation).
Possibly in response to the mayor, who is close to Ron Conway, a big Airbnb investor, planning officials have made it very clear that they do NOT do what the cops would do, and go through Airbnb and VRBO listings looking for violators. They sit back and wait for a neighbor to make a fuss. And even then, the process of cracking down is long and cumbersome (especially since, as planning documents point out, people can simply stop renting for a while, then go back to it when the planning enforcement crew goes away.)
Chiu has suggested that the enforcement authority should go to the Department of Building Inspection, which at least has, well, inspectors who look for problems. But in the staff report to the Planning Commission, planners say they want to keep that role for themselves:
As the City agency responsible for regulating land use, the Department should be the agency in charge of for monitoring and enforcing on short-term rentals because this is essentially a land use issue. While the Department of Building Inspection has a more robust enforcement division, the Planning Department believes that if the enforcement measures outlined in our recommendations are adopted, we will have the tools to effectively enforce the proposed short-term rental restrictions.
But there’s nothing in the recommendations about substantially beefing up the enforcement side of the staff.
Now: If all of the staff recommendations are accepted, enforcement will be a bit easier. The planners want a citywide registry, with mapping, that will allow officials to track the units, and a mandate that all rental notices include a permit registration number from the city. That would make it easier to monitor compliance.
Oh, and the department wants to make it a violation to even list a unit unless it’s properly registered.
These are all good ideas, but will only work if the city then funds what amounts to an enforcement division to – yes – monitor the listings, seek out violators, and levy sufficient financial punishments to serve as a real disincentive.
Remember: A single VRBO unit can bring a landlord many, many times the income that a normal rental unit would. A modest fine won’t work.
Either that or (and I give Randy Shaw credit for this) the city should allow nonprofits to initiate enforcement actions – and get attorney’s fees if they are successful.
It’s also important to consider that Chiu’s legislation – which would in essence rezone the entire city for hotel use – might not get six votes at the Board of Supervisors. And if it does, without restricting the locations where short-term rentals are allowed, the opponents will almost certainly go to the ballot.
And in the meantime, the violations will continue.
The Planning Department doesn’t exactly have a great record in going after Planning Code violators. And it’s not fair to leave the burden entirely on neighbors to initiate complaints.
It’s not hard to find violators. The volunteers at the Anti-eviction Mapping Project have been able to do it without anywhere near the resources of the city.
But there is no budget request from City Planning for a major increase in inspection and enforcement staff for short-term rental cases.
I’m getting the sense that what the mayor wants is to allow the status quo – thousands of code violations a week – to continue while the city sorts out what could be a long and difficult process of deciding whether, and under what conditions, to legalize short-term rentals.
You have to wonder what would happen if the planning director told, say, three staffers to work full time on monitoring the short-term rental sites, looking for violations, filing enforcement actions, turning the worst over to the city attorney, and acting as if this was a real threat to what we all agree is a desperately needed affordable housing stock.
If, that is, we enforced the law as it is, right now, and then once we have make it clear that everyone has to follow the existing rules, we can talk about changing them.
Of course, that’s the opposite of what the tech economy is about. In Ron Conway’s world – and, I guess, Ed Lee’s – you break the rules first, and ask permission to do it later.
The Planning Commission considers this issue at (or probably a little after) 3pm Thursday.