San Francisco to Airbnb: Enforce the rules or pay the price

San Francisco city officials impose tighter restrictions on the short-term rentals blamed for amplifying the city’s housing crisis.

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    Residential houses in San Francisco's Mission District in 2014. The city passed legislation yesterday toughening regulations on Airbnb and other short-term rental businesses amidst an unflagging housing crisis.
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San Francisco just unleashed a new weapon in its ongoing battle with Airbnb and the short-term rental industry.

Companies will owe $1000 for every day they list rentals that are not registered with the city, according to a new rule unanimously approved by the city’s Board of Supervisors (with one conflict-of-interest abstention).

This vote is essentially beefing up enforcement for a preexisting host registration requirement that city officials found had been largely ignored since its passage last February. But the new rule is part of a broader conversation about how to alleviate the city’s pressing housing crisis.

"People are being evicted from their homes, and San Francisco is in a real crisis," explains Carolyn Goossen, a legislative aide to Supervisor David Campos, the board member who introduced the legislation. "While we fight to build more affordable housing, we have to preserve the housing that exists," she tells The Christian Science Monitor.

"Without effective, meaningful regulation, landlords have incentives to kick out long-term tenants and turn their homes into hotels for tourists," Ms. Goossen continues. 

What can the city do? If "the corporation can only list ads by registered hosts, we are essentially ensuring that only primary residents are renting out their own place," she says, "and it’s not landlords taking housing away from tenants.”

A study conducted by the city’s budget and legislative analyst found that 2,000 units were taken permanently off the long-term rental market for short-term rentals, Goossen said.

In a statement, Airbnb, which is headquartered in San Francisco, blamed their lack of compliance on the difficulties of a “broken” registration system. 

“An estimated 1,200 San Franciscans avoided foreclosure or eviction by hosting on Airbnb,” the company said in a statement, “and this legally questionable proposal puts their housing at risk without offering any real solutions to fix the complex process.”

After the proposal of this new legislation several months ago, Airbnb contributed $200,000 to local candidates and ballot measures, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Yesterday’s vote is another tug in the back-and-forth between the city and the short-term rental platforms, which include HomeAway, VRBO, and Flipkey, in addition to Airbnb. In November, voters rejected a measure limiting each household rental to 75 days per year.

It has been just over a year and a half since the city changed legislation to allow short-term rentals, paving the way for Airbnb and other platforms.

Some cities have much tougher restrictions. In New York City, for example, local laws bar residents from renting out single-family apartments for less than thirty days unless a permanent occupant is present. Heated debates between city officials and Airbnb representatives have seen both sides accusing the other of being against the middle class.

Meanwhile, Santa Monica, which has a similar ban to New York City, is already issuing citation fines similar to those authorized by San Francisco’s new rule.

Peter Cohen, co-director Council of Community Housing Organizations, a San Francisco coalition of 24 community organizations dedicated to affordable housing and tenant protections, called the city’s policy on short-term rentals “generous,” particularly in the face of the large-scale displacement and evictions that his coalition is seeing within the city.

“Airbnb needs to be responsible for the best practices of their own clients, and they should be setting a high bar,” he tells the Christian Science Monitor. “This should be something they would smartly step up and embrace on their own, instead they fought it and fought it and fought it.”

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