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News + PoliticsAirbnb initiative filed, setting the scene for high-stakes November...

Airbnb initiative filed, setting the scene for high-stakes November battle

Measure that would mandate Airbnb list only registered hosts is ready to start gathering signatures — and could be a defining issue in D3 election

Protesters outside of Airbnb HQ are part of a large coalition demanding tighter rules
Protesters outside of Airbnb HQ are part of a large coalition demanding tighter rules

By Tim Redmond

APRIL 30, 2015 – Sponsors of an initiative to more tightly restrict short-term rentals are filing their measure this week, setting up a major battle on the November ballot.

The impacts could go beyond Airbnb – it’s likely this will be a big issue in the District 3 supervisorial race and will offer a stark contrast between the two major contenders.

The measure comes as Mayor Ed Lee is trying to head off major reforms with his own modest legislation, and several supervisors are going further.

The initiative would take several major steps to ensure that short-term rentals aren’t abused and are not taking valuable rental housing stock off the market.

Aaron Peskin speaks out against lax Airbnb rules at a recent rally
Aaron Peskin speaks out against lax Airbnb rules at a recent rally

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It would require Airbnb and other hosting platforms to check and make sure that all the rentals they list in San Francisco are in fact legal and registered, and would fine the companies for listing unregistered properties. That’s a big deal since registration for the current system has been going very, very slowly and there are thousands of places available on Airbnb today that aren’t registered with the city.

Airbnb is bitterly opposed to that kind of regulation.

It would limit all short-term rentals to 75 days a year.

The initiative would also provide notification to neighbors when a unit is registered for short-term rentals – and give neighbors the opportunity to take action against an illegal STR if the city fails to do so.

In essence, it would address the problem that City Planning Department staff have repeatedly expressed: The current rules are utterly unenforceable, since there’s no way a limited staff (Planning has only 12 enforcement officers) can properly police more than 5,000 listings unless the host platforms give the city the data it needs.

The tech-based companies that are making large sums of money off short-term rentals ought to be able to comply pretty easily: All they need is to make sure that anyone who posts a rental has a city registration number, and since they are already collecting that data, they can easily turn it over to the city.

Airbnb will fight the initiative, and probably put up a ton of money against it. But there’s a remarkable coalition behind it, including tenant groups like the Housing Rights Committee, landlord groups like the SF Apartment Association, affordable housing and neighborhood groups, and the hotel workers union, Local 2.

So there will be resources on both sides.

“It’s pretty clear from watching the legislative process last year and the recent Planning Commission hearings that the only way the city will get the tools to enforce regulations on short-term rentals is if the voters approve them,” Dale Carlson, who is one of the sponsors of the measure, told me.

“The Planning staff agree that they can’t enforce the existing laws, but they get no support from the mayor or even their own commission.”

Ron Conway, who is one of the most powerful political players in the city, is a big investor in Airbnb, and has the ear of the mayor. Conway and his pals just raised $25,000 for Sup. Julie Christensen, who has to face the voters this fall. Aaron Peskin, her opponent in D3, was part of the coalition that worked to draft the Airbnb initiative, and tonight he told me he was “of course” supporting it – “unless the Board adopts enforceable legislation to make the initiative unnecessary.”

So the incumbent’s ties to Big Tech money and to Airbnb, and Peskin’s support for tighter regulations, will be among the issues that define that critical November race.

(I have emailed Christensen for comment, but I haven’t heard back.)

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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66 COMMENTS

  1. The rule is that you must use only one account at a time. That is what Tim said. You appear to have added your own interpretation to that which wasn’t explicitly stated.

    So if a user starts with A, then uses B, then uses C etc. then, as long as the user does not go back and start re-using the previous one, he is following Tim’s rule.

    Perhaps when he gets to Z, he can go back to using A. But again as long as only one account is used at a time, That is the critical point.

  2. I’ll give two easy examples. (1) AirBnBer in my building doesn’t give her short term tenants the remote to her garage space. Residents are constantly having to wait on the street while the AirBnB renters park their car in the sidewalk, run to the lobby, unlock the door, run to the garage to push the garage door button, and then get in their car. Inconvenient and a nuisance to street traffic. (2) AirBnBer let in a cyclist who proceeded to break into three cars in our garage. Who’s being petty? The person trying to make money illegally or the residents who bought a unit not expecting to live in a hotel.

  3. Well, it seems that you are breaking the rules since you are not using one identity. You’ve used two identities in the same thread. Not only that, you have admitted to being Phil but your BillT account had fewer posts today than that account yesterday. So you are breaking the Terms of Service by using multiple accounts here.

    As for compliance with local law, there are various enforcement mechanisms that a government can use. Obviously San Francisco will have fewer resources than the federal government but all it would have to do is amend the law to also punish the users of an overseas website that flouts the law (plenty of caselaw there). Look at the city setting roadblocks to the French app that would have sold off SF parking spaces.

  4. We can test this hypothesis: post the addresses Sam LLC has on Airbnb, and we’ll see how the city responds to complaints.

  5. Let’s dissect the position of Sam (AKA BillT, Phil79,
    Bobby500, MisterEllis and possibly others) on the Airbnb issue.

    He is an Airbnb host and under an earlier alias said this is
    much better than being part of the regular rental market. My comment: We cannot
    say what precise role hosting services are playing in the skyrocketing rents in
    SF, but we can say that there is one.

    He has refused to register his host properties with the city, an apparent violation of the law. He believes he is entitled to do this because there are worse things that can happen and that he should be the judge of what laws he observes and what laws he doesn’t. He also opposes efforts to strengthen the Airbnb registration requirement. He is a supporter of Mayor Ed Lee who submitted a weak Airbnb reform measure to the Board of Supervisors.

    He asserts that the Internet-based “sharing economy” is
    difficult or impossible for local governments to regulate, but I don’t believe
    he has provided any real examples where regulation has been attempted and for
    legal reasons, failed. The exception, of course, is San Francisco, but that is
    for political, not legal reasons.

    Sam is using the discussion board to espouse support for a libertarian
    nirvana that frees him from the tax and regulatory demands of local
    governments. In this sense he is like the young idealistic libertarian who
    developed the Silk Road web site for drugs and now resides in jail.

    Is there anything I missed?

  6. Ok. Also, SF-Oak-Fremont MSA.

    Still even 3% is fairly loose. And this ‘boom’ is more like the one of 15 yrs ago, instead of the false ‘recovery’ of 10 yrs ago. I remember vacancies of <1% then.

  7. But wait. Are ‘occupied units’ delineated on the basis of short-term or long-term residency? So responses to a questionnaire might call an ABnB unit “occupied” while an RC vacancy might respond “vacant”. So ABnB *could* have significant – yet undetected by ACS – effects.

  8. A duplex where both units have been owner-occupied for at least one year can fast-track to condo conversion without any lottery.

    The current moratorium on condo conversions does not apply to duplexes.

  9. There’s plenty of ways to reduce RC stock. OMIs. TICs. Vacancies, CondoCons. (Aren’t duplexes automatically allowed to convert – virtually, anyway). And since 40% of RC stock is in small bldgs – which are prime candidates for the above, reduction in stock is understood/assured.

  10. Tim’s rule for this site is that people should only use one account name at a time. He said nothing about people who wish to change their name as long as they are consistent about it.

    If you do not like his rules, then you should take the matter up with him.

    Can you answer the question posed?

  11. Sorry, forgot labels: lower line is owners, higher is rentals.

    Current means current: rental vacancy the last four quarters averaged 3%, owner 0.4%. The boom shows up fine: in 2011, those averages were 7% and 1.8%; in 2005, 8% and 1.6%.

  12. Isn’t this the question you asked as “Phil” yesterday when you talked about overseas enforcement on another issue? Seriously, are you making a new moniker every day to troll this site?

  13. Pete, yes. The number of RC units available for rent is declining each year (not least because no new RC units can be created).

    However I doubt that much of that loss can be attributed to Airbnb. Landlords who choose to do Airbnb with those units have already given up on rent control and wont go back to doing long-term lets.

    A much bigger cause of the gradual loss of RC units is through evictions and natural turnover. No-fault evictions almost invariably means the unit will not be re-rented and indeed, in most cases, it is disallowed anyway. While even with at-fault evictions and natural turnover, a certain proportion of owners will decide they are done with RC, and withdraw the unit from the rental market

    My guess is that SF loses about 3K controlled units a year, net. Relatively few of them happen only because of Airbnb.

  14. Exactly right.

    there’s no evidence of a significant effect on the housing stock. If the goal is to help people have a place to live, energy spent on this initiative is energy wasted

  15. I’m curious about this graph. By ‘current’ do you mean over the last 10 yrs? Also, the two lines – what does each represent? They don’t seem to correlate to each other, nor do they seem to tell the story of the Great Recession and current boom. And the end seems to be the same as the beginning.

  16. Tim’s constant complaint is that these rules are not enforced and cannot be enforced. I suggest that you take the matter up with him. My own experience of doing this for over 15 years is that it is not enforced.

  17. If you can’t detect a reduction of supply in older housing, how can it be decried that ABnB is cannibalizing the housing stock? If ABnB does, then so does RC. If RC doesn’t, then neither does ABnB.

  18. You misunderstood what I meant by supply. I am talking about the supply of controlled rentals through re-renting after a vacancy. Even though an attractive market rent can be gotten, some LL’s still prefer to Airbnb or TIC, just to avoid RC.

    And it’s not even so much about the rent as the feeling of being trapped. Most LL’s I talk to are less concerned with the control of rents and more concerned that they could get stuck with a lifer.

    New build is a different matter. But Peskin is talking about wanting to bring new build and post-79 build under RC. Can you understand how such retrospective laws might deter the new build of rentals?

  19. I would concur that there is little evidence one way or the other. I’ve compared ACS for various locales and find conflicting data. So, Boston (no RC) has similar size and vacancies; NYC has larger size and almost 2x vacancies (and it does have RC/RS); other locations various.
    Anicdotally RC creates vacant units, and is a rational response short/mid term. Obviously vacancy is not a viable long term strategy (in most cases). But then, neither is rent control a viable long term strategy. Couple this with changing economy and demographics and … BOOM!

  20. There is no rent control on new units, so the Rent Ordinance cannot reduce new supply. If reduction of supply of older housing were significant, we would measure it, both in the ACS and in evictions. The numbers, however, just aren’t there.

  21. That would be a good question for you to answer, since you appear to support zero tolerance on one and a total pass on the other

  22. There is an entire Cato Institute report on rent control (google it) that lays out all the evidence for how rent control deters the provision of rental housing. In a broader sense, any kind of price control has the effective of reducing supply for the simple reason that it becomes less profitable.

    In my case, I have owned ten SF RC units and currently only one of them is rented out long-term. The reason? Rent control makes it more profitable for me to do something else with it.

    ACS will miss subtleties like this. For instance, I own both a TIC and a condo. I choose to live in the TIC because it would be under RC if I rented it out. The condo is exempt from control of rents, so it makes more sense to rent that out.

    That doesn’t show up as a vacancy but it sure as hell reduces the amount of controlled rentals in the city. Rent control eats its own tail.

  23. What makes this law a patriotic duty, and the law restricting short term rentals a mere annoyance openly to flout?

  24. Rent control makes rental property less valuable, but there is no evidence it deters rentals in a significant way. Rent control primarily acts on demand: in increases demand significantly, without any pressure to increase supply. A thoughtful rent control regime must include aggressive efforts to add supply.

    The ACS provides the best available estimates. 9,000 units are just vacant, these will include any held off the market. 6,000 are held vacant for occasional use. And 11,000 or so are for rent or sale, or rented/sold but not occupied.

  25. It would appear there is hypocrisy and a double standard on both sides. The left want to give a pass to illegals and yet want zero tolerance of technical zoning ordinances.

    I feel sure that Tim would argue that not only is it right to employ civil disobedience against unjust laws but that it is demanded. The problem, of course, is that concepts like “just” and “fair” are highly subjectve

  26. To the point, do we really want neighbors policing neighbors? Only bad things can come about from this policy, do people like Peskin think things through to their logical conclusion

  27. That has been argued occasionally but since it isn’t enforced, a reasonable person would have to lump it in with any other law whose lack of enforcement indicates that it is not a public policy imperative.

    And of course Chiu’s law currently allows it anyway, subject to some bureaucratic process which, AIUI, is also not enforced.

  28. The point often stated is that nobody has an accurate idea of the number of vacant units in SF. And estimates vary. I believe SPUR said it could be in the 10,000 to 30,000 range.

    What we do know for sure is that a proportion of SF LL’s elect not to re-rent long-term when they have a vacancy. Many will Airbnb or TIC rather than literally leave them empty. But either way they are lost to the long-term rental market.

    And of course we know that many LL’s evict to get a vacancy and then choose not to re-rent long-term.

    So what cannot be denied is that rent control deters long-term rentals, and that is its crucial flaw.

  29. San Francisco ordinance prohibits rentals under 30 days outside of hotels or registered users of homesharing services.

  30. Human beings are never illegal. Some human behavior is illegal, but immigration status is not criminal under US law. Unregistered, short-term rentals likewise are illegal but not criminal under San Francisco law, but nobody calls Airbnb users ‘illegals’.

    Open, facial bigotry is ugly and tiresome. Please cease.

  31. Yes, any law that turns neighbors against neighbors, and friends against friends, and families against families, all for financial gain, is an appalling thing for anyone who cares about community and civility.

    I intend to rat out one illegal to ICE for every Airbnber who gets ratted out. Or maybe two.

  32. Like I said, if there are no regulations forbidding AirBnB, then fair enough. But most hosts, particularly ones in condos and tenants in apartments, are breaking an agreed upon set of rules and conditions. It’s that simple. Their “judgement” is in no way a substitute for rules they themselves have agreed to abide by. You don’t get to pick and choose the laws that you wish to follow. Break them and suffer the consequences.

  33. “give neighbors the opportunity to take action against an illegal STR if the city fails to do so”
    This is very poor policy, asking neighbors to police one another. Does Peskin really support this nonce? What does that say about him?

  34. Again, CC&R’s only apply to a condo. I do not own a condo precisely because I do not want my neighbors telling me what I can and cannot do. Or trying to anyway.

    Nor do I rent, so no lease restricts me.

    So if you live next door to me then your only valid argument is that zoning doesn’t allow it. BFD. As the article notes, the Planning Dept cannot possibly enforce such vague notions anyway. And they surely have better things to do.

    If a guest of mine harms you I will take the consequences. Or my insurance company will. But I am not going to allow unfounded paranoia interfere with my freedoms. It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission. No deal.

  35. “I reserve the right to over-ride your concerns” – No, you don’t. Not if your actions are forbidden by a set of agreed-upon terms and conditions.

    I’m not telling my neighbors what they can or cannot do in their homes. The building, collectively, is telling what they can or cannot do with their home – and it’s all in black and white, disclosed to them when they bought their home.

  36. No, the end of the story is whether I think your fears are rational or not. I reserve the right to over-ride your concerns and, if necessary, I will buy insurance to cover any consequences.

    You can never legislate to the point of zero risk. And you will probably be safer in your home if you do not piss off all your neighbors by trying to tell them what they can and cannot do in their own homes.

  37. I don’t care. Abiding by the CC&R’s that all owners have agreed to isn’t being “micro-managed”. Again, I really don’t give a damn how irrational you think my fears are. The CC&R’s, or your lease, or the zoning laws say no short term lets.

    Period. End of story.

  38. Well, it may be that I live next door to you in a single family home that I own. No CC&R’s and no lease. So I can Airbnb my home and the risk you claim you are exposed to would exist anyway.

    Again, what if your neighbor rents out his unit long-term (allowed) and then his tenant breaks into your home and murders you?

    In my experience, the average short-term renter is a lot more affluent, civilized and well-behaved than the average SF long-term tenant.

    I’ve been doing these kinds of lets for over 15 years and I doubt any of my neighbors have even noticed. They certainly haven’t been harmed. Nor have they ever complained.

    At some point I am entitled to say that your fears are less rational than my resentment of being micro-managed as to what I do in my own home. And at that point I will make a rational informed decision to do what I want to do anyway.

    In the exceedingly improbable case that you suffer some harm, we will deal with that if and when that happens. You might as well argue that I should never drive my car because there is a 0.00001% chance that I might hit you.

  39. You’re missing the point. That chance isn’t one you have any right to make a decision regarding. I don’t care how miniscule the chance is, when I bought my condo or rented my unit I did it under the guise that all other residents would be following the same rules. Don’t like it? Get permission from the landlord to sublet. Go petition the HOA to change the rules. Got to the Planning Dept. (or whomever is responsible) and have the zoning changed. What you don’t get to do is to decide that it’s ok to break the rules because you feel the chances of an incident are miniscule. This is how some people justify speeding. It may seem like a small infraction, but it can have deadly consequences for those who abide by the speed limit. Again, this isn’t a decision you’re entitled to make based on your judgement.

  40. I’m of the uninformed opinion that changes in the Reg system could be helpful; it certainly seems byzantine right now. A simple reg system and req’d Reg # by ABnB platforms doesn’t sound imposing. Allowing 3rd party cause-of-action sounds like an ambulance chaser’s wet dream.

    I agree that while this ‘sounds’ innocuous, just a few minor details could make the whole thing untenable. And with initiatives, this is often the case – cuz, after all, its just one sides interest/opinions.

    BTW wcw, like your graphs and references to things other than your own imagination
    .
    If people are concerned about losing long term rentals, maybe they should consider removing rent controls from newly established tenancies (yes, even in older bldgs). Long term renting is an easier business model; whose benefits are cancelled by the negatives of rent control. There may indeed be consequences outside the walls of a short term let, but its entirely logical under present circumstances that people would embrace this model to deal with current vacancies.

  41. I would need to understand that your fear is reasonable, rational and proportionate before taking that into account. If it amounts to nothing more than unfounded paranoia then I’m not sure what is to be done.

    For instance, if the risk to you (assume you are my neighbor else it makes no sense anyway) is 0.001% percent then we may be talking about risks equivalent to you being struck by lightning or abducted by Martians.

    If the risk of you being harmed by my guest is statistically less than the risk of a home invasion from a long-term tenant or the risk of you being hit by a car while walking down the street, then how seriously should I take your concern?

  42. It doesn’t matter what harm has or hasn’t been done. As a homeowner, I’m not willing to take that risk and chance it just because you feel you’re justified and entitled to “looking beyond the chapter and verse and rule” and want to make a few extra bucks. It’s not your decision to make and possibly put my safety and use and enjoyment of my unit in jeopardy.

  43. True. But it is a damning indictment of rent control that even though the landlord of a vacant unit can get a huge initial rent, a good number of them still decide that it is more trouble than it is worth.

  44. If they come back to market they will be at current rates, even if they’re under rent control. So yeah, it does nothing for the lower income folks.

  45. always try and look beyond the chapter and verse of the rule and instead see what harm is actually being done

    This is an excellent approach.

    Perhaps we should apply it to immigration, too.

  46. The idea of time shares, home shares and home swaps have been around a long time. The incidence of problems arising from them is trivial as far as I know.

    Likewise there has been a section on CraigsList for short-term lets for at least 15 years that I know of. Again, not a big deal.

    What seems to have upset people is the scale of it now that there are apps and websites and all.

    Yes, temporary lets may be banned by CC&R’s, leases or zoning regulations. But I always try and look beyond the chapter and verse of the rule and instead see what harm is actually being done.

    And while there may be a few cases where such lets go sour, they are a tiny minority. And Airbnb constantly monitors and rates guests and hosts so any problem can be quickly highlighted.

    Airbnb operates in 200 countries and about 4,000 cities. Very few of those places appear to have any problem with it. But this is SF and so of course there is always a chorus of people whining about it.

    But again, what real harm is done?

  47. I’ll field that one – generally when you have a “guest” (friend, relative) stay with you you are generally there with them. Even if you are not, you have a relationship with that person and there is a basis of trust.

    This is not the case with a complete stranger staying in your home while you are there or away. You’ve no idea what they are capable of doing, whether intentional or not.

    There’s a reason most leases contain bolierplate language that disallows subletting. I’ve also yet to read a set of CC&R’s that didn’t contain language barring a short term tenant for less than 30 days. There are also zoning laws in place that may prohibit short term lets in some neighborhoods.

    Bottom line is this – most people renting out space on AirBnB are most likely violating one of the three above-mentioned conditions.

  48. Yes, the idea that if nobody Airbnb’ed then there would somehow magically be this glut of affordable long-term rentals coming back onto the market is ridiculous. The people doing Airbnb who are actually landlords have already decided that they are not going back to rent control.

    And that appears to leave the “party pooper” mob i.e. people who are not in any way affected by Airbnb’ing but who just hate to see anyone making a little money. Or those who have a pathological hatred of tech.

    This is what I like to call a “miserable turd” initiative.

  49. I can just see how the city attorney will draft that one:

    “Whereas getting rid of one cancer is better than doing nothing, and whereas Airbnb is domiciled in our city, we will impose restrictions on their business that do not affect their competition.”

    What could possibly go wrong with that?

    In preparation for the ballot measure Airbnb polled voters about what their reaction would be if AirBnb had to leave the city because of overregulation. Response wasn’t good.

  50. So you agree that you would not be harmed in any way by my doing that, but you just want to try and stop me out of ideological pettiness and spite?

    Got it.

    Luckily I am going to do it anyway.

  51. Explain to me how you are personally harmed or impacted if I choose to sometimes have a guest in my home.

  52. To summarize your post: We can’t cure all cancers so why are we trying to cure a specific cancer?

    The answer: We have to start someplace. Getting rid of one cancer at a time is better than doing nothing. And we learn as we progress.

  53. I will the ask the question that always gets asked and that nobody can ever answer:

    How will the city force an overseas-based version of Airbnb to comply with its local law? There are no sanctions the city can take against an entity beyond our borders.

    All this will do is benefit foreign sites over local sites. And possibly cause Airbnb and others to domicile themselves beyond the city’s jurisdiction.

    I will continue to do short-term lets via whatever platform or advertizing medium that bypasses the city’s dumb register. I do not consider it anyone else’s business if I sometimes have a guest in my home.

  54. And so it begins. AirBnB could have prevented this by being a good citizen, but now they will suffer the consequences. If San Francisco is successful in this, there are many other jurisdictions that will work to implement something similar, so I expect a ton of money to be shoveled into the campaign to fight this.

    I fully support this initiative.

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