Plus: The future of the Ethics Commission, City College contract talks … and why I ran the Bay to Breakers

More than 5,000 illegal Airbnb units, and no enforcement -- so why does the mayor want to leave things that way?
More than 5,000 illegal Airbnb units, and no enforcement — so why does the mayor want to leave things that way?

By Tim Redmond

MAY 18, 2015 – The next chapter in the battle to save San Francisco’s housing stock from cannabilization by short-term rentals opens this afternoon, when the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee takes up competing bills to regulate Airbnb.

Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Mark Farrell have a measure that would limit short-term rentals to 120 days a year and create and Office of Short-Term Rental Enforcement, which will run into exactly the same problem that the existing enforcement agencies face:

You can’t possible keep track of more than 5,000 listings from Airbnb, VRBO, and other similar platforms if the companies making the big bucks of this practice refuse to cooperate.

The City Planning Department has already made it clear that the existing law, pushed by Assemblymember David Chiu when he was a supervisor, is completely unenforceable.

The alternative bill, by Sups. David Campos, Eric Mar, and John Avalos, would force the hosting platforms to give the city the information that’s necessary to make any sort of regulations work.

That measure would limit all STRs to 60 days – and would bar companies like Airbnb from listing any unit that didn’t have a city permit. So far, fewer than 300 units have been registered as legal in San Francisco.

In effect, the bill would do what city planning staff have been begging for: It would shift the burden of proof from the city, which has nowhere near the enforcement resources, to the multi-billion-dollar platforms, which would simply have to monitor their users and share data.

What we can expect at the hearing is a preview of what’s likely to be a fall ballot campaign. The Campos bill might get six votes, but the mayor – who is very tight with Airbnb investor Ron Conway – is unlikely to sign it. In which case Share Better SF, a coalition of tenant groups, landlord groups, and labor, will put an initiative on the November ballot doing essentially what this bill would do.

Here’s how Airbnb will respond: You will see speaker after speaker talking about how “homesharing” has allowed him or her to make extra case in a brutal housing market, pay for medical expenses, pay college tuition – or for that matter, keep the house or apartment.

What you won’t hear is that much of what the “sharers” (and sharing is the wrong word, since this is a simple commercial transaction) are talking about would remain perfectly legal under the Campos bill.

Want to rent out that spare bedroom once the kid has gone to college? Fine. Want to make some extra cash renting your house while you’re on vacation or travelling for work? Fine.

It would all be perfectly legal – as long as you register with the city, and as long as you are actually renting out a spare room or the place where you really live.

And you can only do it part time.

What you can’t do is buy up a dozen buildings, evict all the tenants under the Ellis Act, and turn those units into hotel rooms. In fact, you can’t buy a vacant residential unit and make it into a hotel room. You can’t take existing rental housing stock off the market to make more money off Airbnb.

And Airbnb, which built a business model based almost entirely on people violating the law, has to tell the city how many nights your unit has been rented, so enforcement doesn’t involve some sort of complex sting operation. Oh, and if you’re not a legal STR, Airbnb can get fined up to $1,000 a night for listing it.

But Airbnb is slick, and has a sophisticated PR team, and will be testing the responses at the hearing to see what it should feature in a campaign that will no doubt involve millions of dollars.

One of the strategies might be “privacy.” Why should the City Planning Department know when you rent out a room in your house? Of course, Airbnb already knows that, and so does the City Tax Collector, and so does the IRS. And the city routinely handles confidential business data, and there have been no problems.

Watch closely: This is a clear case of corporate tech interests pushing a high-stakes agenda.

The hearing starts at 1:30pm in City Hall Room 250.


Budget season is starting, and although the mayor hasn’t released his proposal for Fiscal Year 2015-2016 yet, the parade of departments discussing their plans for the next year is starting. Over the next few weeks, nearly every agency head in the city will appear before the Budget and Finance Committee to outline his or her plans for the future – and financial needs.

It starts Wednesday/20 at 1pm with the PUC, the Library, the Port, and the Airport.



I have always liked Nato Green’s Examiner column, and this week’s has a wonderful guide for white people who are trying to understand riots over racist police.

Some things to think about beyond the race issues, too:

Hurting things is not the moral equivalent of hurting people. It is misleading to call both violence. Corporate personhood notwithstanding, a protest did not “turn violent” if the only violence against other humans was committed by cops. I’m not into property destruction because it’s bad tactics and undemocratic in a movement. If you have a million people ready to set cop cars on fire, by all means do so. If you have a million people wanting to protest peacefully and 20 dudes who want to set cars on fire, those dudes should stick to writing “V for Vendetta” fan fiction.

Sometimes people who endure structural oppression and cultural revilement resist by protesting and sometimes by rioting. We now finally have an answer to the question “How racist is America exactly?” America is so racist that white people have less compassion for black people rioting for justice in Baltimore than for white people rioting at Penn State in defense of a child molester. It’ll take more than the first black president to shift that boulder. It would take George W. Bush being the last white president.


The director of the SF Ethics Commission, John St. Croix, is stepping down. Under his reign, the agency was a laughingstock that did nothing about the reign of sleaze that had dominated local politics. That’s not all his fault – the five people he works for have shown little interest in making Ethics a real watchdog.

But the director could have done so much more – and now there’s a job opening. The process of filing his seat ought to be as open as possible, and the commissioners ought to be looking for someone with a proven track record of cracking down on electoral fraud, campaign finance violations, and violations of the sunshine laws.

I can think of so many candidates. It would be a disgrace if the Ethics Commission members can’t find one.


The negotiations between City College and its teachers continue, and the unions isn’t happy. One big reason: The administration, for whatever silly reason, doesn’t want “open” negotiating sessions — that it, the bosses don’t want rank-and-file teachers allowed into the bargaining room to watch what’s going on.

If the union leaders want their members to have a chance to see what’s on the table, and what the issues are, why could that possibly be a problem?

Bigger, maybe: The union wants the future of the school to be part of the discussion — that is, teachers say that City College needs a plan to restore its enrollment and rebuild after a long assault by a rogue accreditor. The administration says that’s not a contract issue.

Again, silly: If the staff wants to work with you to improve and expand an institution, why would you turn them down?

The future of the teachers’ contract depends on future enrollment. You have hundreds of people with a stake in the institution wanting to work to make things better. The cluelessness of this management crew continues to boggle me.


So yes, I ran the Zappos © Bay to Breakers. The shirts are so full of corporate sponsors that you wonder why you still have to kick in $60 to play. And yet … it’s still really festive.

You feel as if the whole city has come out to party – not way out in the Black Rock Desert, where you need a car, or an RV, and a big wad of money, and you still might not be allowed in if you don’t get a ticket. Bay to Breakers is the cut-rate local-go-on-the-bus version of a crazy party.

I understand some people got arrested. I understand there was probably some inappropriate urination. I understand that when you hold a big event in the city, instead of out in the desert, you have impacts on the residents.

But even in the cold, foggy morning, we had a great time. In a city where so much is so bleak so often, it’s nice to have a moment like that.