Mayor and his allies scramble to make sure that real regulations don’t pass — but now it’s even more likely this will be on the ballot
By Tim Redmond
JUNE 9, 2015 – About an hour before the San Francisco supervisors voted with Airbnb and delayed any new regulations of the short-term rental industry, Mayor Ed Lee spoke briefly with reporters — and said that the best way to enforce the rules against illegal hotel rooms was to create a new agency that wouldn’t have any more data than the existing agencies, which have been unable to enforce the law.
Lee then signaled the plan that was clearly in the works: Force a one-month continuance of a measure by Sup. David Campos that would have required Airbnb to work with the city to block unregistered listings and to make sure that the limits on the number of days a unit could be rented out to tourists were followed.
I asked the mayor how he could possibly see his legislation working if Airbnb didn’t cooperate and share data. “My feeling is that we need multiple agencies” working on enforcement, he said. He said that he expected the supervisors to delay both his legislation and the Campos bill to try to work out more details.
Then the supes voted 7-4 to put the issue off for a month – possibly because Airbnb and the mayor didn’t have the six votes to block the Campos measure.
“They went into the meeting thinking they had the votes, but something happened,” Campos told me. “So they had to find a way to postpone it.”
In the process, several members of the board suggested that over the next month, they could work out a compromise – but it’s hard to see how that could happen without a violation of the Brown Act, which requires the supervisors to meet and discuss legislation in public.
In fact, if Sups. Mark Farrell and Julie Christensen, who both argued for a delay to find “a middle ground,” wanted to change the Campos legislation, they could have proposed amendments. That’s how the process is supposed to work: A measure is heard in committee, where some amendments are offered. Then it goes to the full board, where there are often more amendments.
The process, under state and local law, is supposed to be public.
“In the next 30 days, we are supposed to miraculously find middle ground without violating the Brown Act,” Campos said. “I don’t know how that is going to work.”
The law forbids what are known as “serial” meetings, where one supervisor meets with another, who then meets with another to pass the word along. If a majority of the board is involved in the discussion, it has to take place in public.
Also: Airbnb and its allies have refused to compromise on the essential point of the Campos bill. The hosting platform won’t do the two things that the city needs – it won’t ban listings that lack a city registration number, and it won’t tell the city how many nights a place has been on the short-term rental market.
The rest of the debate is pretty unimportant. Campos wants to limit the number of allowable short-term rental nights to 60; the mayor wants twice that. I’m sure there’s a compromise somewhere in the middle.
But the idea that the city will somehow have to monitor every one of the 5,000 or more listings to see if any of them lack permits, and use some unexplained process to figure out whether anyone is violating the limit on the number of nights, is and will remain the sticking point.
Airbnb’s business model doesn’t work, and doesn’t make as much money, if everyone follows the rules – even weak rules. That’s why the company doesn’t want to make credible enforcement possible.
In his opening remarks on the issue, Farrell said he wanted to avoid taking the matter to the ballot. It’s a complicated question, he said; the board needs the flexibility to change the law as the market evolves.
True enough. But his move to delay this a month pretty much guarantees that Share Better SF will gather enough signatures to qualify a ballot initiative. So if he really wanted to keep this off the ballot, he did exactly the opposite.
Farrell moved that both his measure and the Campos measure be continued a month. That’s a bit unusual – normally the board doesn’t force one of its members to accept a continuance against his or her wishes.
Campos asked Farrell to back off, and allow a yes-or-no vote on the measure; Farrell refused.
Sup. Jane Kim got to the heart of the issue when she noted that Airbnb is trying to avoid taking any responsibility for enforcing the city’s laws.
Small businesses all over town, including restaurants and liquor stores, have to share responsibility for enforcing the laws against the sale of alcohol to minors, she noted. “We ask our small businesses to do this all the time.”
Christensen said she “understand the problem” after seeing apartments in North Beach turned into hotel rooms. And she said that new rules are needed. “But I don’t think we’ve found a way to do it yet,” she said.
Campos told me after the meeting that he “has not heard a peep out of Sup. Christensen on this issue.”
There was an interesting moment when Sup. Malia Cohen said that Campos had just asked for a “pause” in development in the Mission – and now was opposing a “pause” in the Airbnb legislation.
Kim noted that there’s actually a huge difference between asking for interim zoning controls and continuing a bill, but never mind: Campos had an answer.
“I think I would be in a different place if the vote last week had gone differently,” he said. “People are asking for 30 days for Airbnb, but wouldn’t give 45 days to the Mission.”
And, he said, Airbnb continues to violate the law and cause evictions – “if Airbnb were willing to pause the illegal listings of thousands of units, I might not have this sense of urgency.”
As for taking time to make the legislation better, Campos said he would consider that “if I thought there might be some middle ground.” But on the basic question – should Airbnb have a share of the responsibility for enforcing the city laws – there seems to be no middle ground at all.
So we shall see: The Airbnb lobbyists will continue to put on pressure, and I don’t see how the supervisors can legally get together to find common ground before the July 14 meeting – and in the meantime, the ballot measure is going to qualify.
The vote to delay the measure was 7-4, with only Campos, John Avalos, Kim, and Eric Mar dissenting.