Airbnb fight comes out of shadows and into SF’s housing crisis 

click to enlarge Short-term rentals, such as those offered through the Airbnb website, have come under fire from tenants who say they’ve been ousted to make room for such rentals. - COURTESY WWW.AIRBNB.COM/S/SAN-FRANCISCO--CA
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  • Short-term rentals, such as those offered through the Airbnb website, have come under fire from tenants who say they’ve been ousted to make room for such rentals.

For the past two years, skirmishes over how or if short-term rentals in San Francisco should be regulated have been fought mostly behind the scenes amid a very public housing crisis citywide.

Now that fight -- from legal action to legislation to a ballot measure and even a pro-Airbnb rally -- is out in the open and everyone's cards are on the table.

Last week, for instance, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit against two landlords alleging that they evicted tenants in order to rent out their apartments on Airbnb and similar short-term rental sites.

But the center of gravity is a piece of legislation that was in the works for more than a year and introduced earlier this month by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. It seeks to regulate -- and legalize -- short-term rentals.

The legislation, which has the support of Airbnb and the San Francisco Tenants Union, would require short-term rental services to collect San Francisco's 14 percent hotel tax and prohibit housing stock from being turned into de facto hotels. Still, it would allow people to use their apartments as short-term rentals so long as they live there most of the time.

Opponents view Chiu's proposal as either lukewarm or wrongheaded.

"We're asking The City to enforce existing laws rather than create new ones," said Janan New of the San Francisco Apartment Association.

Evictions -- particularly those under the Ellis Act, a state law that allows landlords to evict tenants and get out of the rental business -- have dominated the debate about San Francisco's housing shortage, but New contends that more housing is being lost because of short-term rentals.

New spoke Tuesday along with a group of unlikely allies -- housing-rights activists, landlords, hotel workers and others -- at a City Hall gathering of opponents to Chiu's bill, brought together by former Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who's backing Chiu's opponent for the state Assembly, Supervisor David Campos.

"The enforcement has been lax because there are political forces in Room 200 that do not want that law enforced," Peskin said.

Chiu's legislation, housing-rights advocate Calvin Welch said, is essentially a "back-door rezoning of every residential neighborhood in San Francisco."

Opposition to Chiu's bill also includes a ballot measure introduced earlier this week that would limit short-term rentals to neighborhoods zoned for commercial use. It would also require people who rent their homes on a short-term basis to join a public registry and show proof of both their landlord's permission and insurance coverage.

For his part, Chiu contends that his bill is the best way to limit, regulate and legalize a widely used and popular service while also protecting those who rent out their places.

He is not alone.

Airbnb supporters rallied in front of City Hall on Tuesday to show that not all users of the service are bad actors and the San Francisco Tenants Union has backed the bill.

Mayor Ed Lee, who has not taken a position on the bill but has said he supports nurturing the "sharing economy," is generally supportive of creating rules that allow such services to remain, said mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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