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News + PoliticsThe Airbnb law is failing. Here's how

The Airbnb law is failing. Here’s how

Supes hearing shows that enforcement of the law is barely happening. Plus: Should SF taxpayers underwrite the Super Bowl party?

There are more than 7,000 Airbnb listings in SF, and more than 90 percent are still illegal
There are more than 7,000 Airbnb listings in SF, and more than 90 percent are still illegal

JANUARY 12, 2016 – Nobody from Airbnb or any of the other short-term rental platforms showed up at yesterday’s hearing on enforcing the city’s law. No representative was on hand to tell the Land Use and Transportation Committee members whether the companies have any interest in cooperating with the city. Oh, they were aware that the issue was on the table, but the corporate execs chose to duck.

“It’s really sad for me to read in the Chronicle that the city administrator had to beg Airbnb to do the right thing,” Sup. David Campos noted. “That’s where we are today – instead of rules we are begging.”

Sup. Scott Wiener started the hearing off by saying that it’s “very important that the public has confidence that there is enforcement” of the existing law. He said that the law had only been on the books for a year, and the Office of Short-Term Rental Enforcement only really up and running for a few months.

But then we got the numbers, which are not terribly encouraging.

Kevin Guy, the head of the short-term rental office, said that his staff had received 1,318 applications for the permits that allow people to rent legally through short-term platforms. There are, at this point, 879 approved and registered hosts. Another 269 applications are pending.

He said that since the law took effect, his office has taken on 264 enforcement cases, and closed 109 of them.

Now: There is some dispute about how many STRs there are in the city. Guy said he thinks it might be 5,000. Ian Lewis, a researcher for Local 2, the Hotel Workers Union, testified that trade publications show Airbnb alone had 7,985 listings in San Francisco in October – and Guy says that Airbnb probably accounts for only half the STRs in the city.

Some hosts testified that they list on multiple platforms. Still, 5,000 is probably a floor, and Campos said his information puts the high end a closer to 10,000.

In which case, more than 90 percent of the short-term rentals in the city are still unregistered, and thus illegal. That’s not a very good record for the city’s enforcement agency.

Even if Guy is right, and the number is closer to 5,000, 80 percent are still illegal.

Here’s another sign of how bad it is: Peter Quan, who spoke on behalf of the organization San Francisco Homesharers, bragged that his group had more than 2,200 members. If the city had only registered 879, then more than half of his members are breaking the law.

“Maybe before you come down here and talk about your membership, you should try to get them all registered,” Campos said.

Wiener said he want to see the city “get off the STR roller coaster” and quit amending the law, so that hosts could feel free to register without worrying that the rules were changing.

But the hearing produced some useful information about how the board could improve the enforcement – not by changing any of the rules that impact hosts, but by mandating more cooperation from the platforms. Which, by the way, are making lots of money — $100 million in revenue in the last year alone, just from San Francisco, according to Lewis.

The first thing Guy mentioned – and it would be so easy for Airbnb and its competitors – is to provide the city with the addresses of any unit where there’s a complaint or a question about its legality. Right now it’s hard for anyone, including city regulators, to find out exactly which listing applies to which address; the platforms keep that intentionally vague.

“I’m constantly asked why we don’t just go on the websites, find the illegal ones, and send them a notice of violation,” Guy asked. But without the addresses, it’s hard to do that – not impossible, but time-consuming and staff-intensive.

In most cases, he said, the office responds to complaints; proactively seeking out violations is less of a priority.

That change would cost Airbnb nothing, not a penny, and would help quickly resolve complaints and investigations.

The other key change, which has been talked about for more than a year: Simply ban the hosting platforms from listing any unregistered units. This would have no impact on legal hosts, and would instantly end much of the abuse.

It’s mind-boggling that the supes refused to approve that amendment when it came up last year. With the clear failure of current enforcement, it’s crazy to think that the board can allow things to continue as they are.

“Airbnb and Homeaway are making fools of this board,” Lewis said.

As Campos put it, “the more you learn, the more it becomes evident that the existing law is not working.”

 

The committee spent some time talking about the costs of Super Bowl 50, and the message we got was this:

The city will spend taxpayer money – maybe $3 million or $4 million of taxpayer money – providing police, Muni, public works, and other support to the event. The city will probably take in more than that in increased revenue.

But either way, Sup. Jane Kim, said, “I think it’s a policy discussion whether private entities should pay for this event, whether it brings in money or not.”

Part of the debate involved an important distinction: Other big events, like Pride, and the Chinese New Year Parade, also require a lot of city services, and those event committees don’t reimburse the public till for the cost of additional police, Muni service, etc.

But – for all the complaints about corporate sponsorship of Pride – those events are not, by definition, corporate marketing. The entire purpose of the Super Bowl Village, the NFL Experience, and the rest of the local party hype is to promote a multibillion-dollar corporate conglomerate that exploits and endangers the lives of its workers.

Yes, it will bring free-spending tourists to the city. But the Host Committee has raised $50 million for the extravaganza, and it’s a fair question whether the city should be putting out any money at all to underwrite it.

“Three or four million dollars may not sound like a lot of money to the very rich,” Kim said. But to the rest of us, it’s … a corporate subsidy.

And there may be more trouble in Super Bowl City: several labor unions showed up to say that the contractors the Host Committee has hired are not friendly to labor.

One of them: Bauer Transportation, which is involved in a nasty fight with the Teamsters. The union just lost an election, but have accused the company of “threatening and surveilling workers,” Doug Block of the Teamsters told the committee.

“This is not the kind of company we want to be doing business with,” Block said.

In fact, he said, “there could be some disruptive impact” if the issue isn’t settled.

SEIU’s United Service Workers West was on hand, too, to complain about a security contractor, Security Industry Specialists.

So there is a lack of labor peace, and even Wiener acknowledged that it could be a problem.

We all know what’s really going on: The city has to bid for the Super Bowl, and to get it we have to give up a lot, and things like making sure the taxpayers aren’t on the hook isn’t part of the discussion. We have to love the NFL, and give the NFL what it wants, and that’s what this massive money machine is about.

 

 

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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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