Airbnb pays back taxes but the short-term rental debate is far from over 

Mayor Ed Lee, third from left, signed legislation that makes short-term rentals legal in San Francisco in October. Officials have applauded the announcement that Airbnb has paid its back taxes to The City but acknowledge more work needs to be done. - MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • mike koozmin/s.f. examiner file photo
  • Mayor Ed Lee, third from left, signed legislation that makes short-term rentals legal in San Francisco in October. Officials have applauded the announcement that Airbnb has paid its back taxes to The City but acknowledge more work needs to be done.

This week's announcement that multibillion dollar short-term rental company Airbnb has paid its back taxes to The City set off a wave of statements from politicians on both sides of the debate.

But while the company's resolution of its 3-year-old tax bill has settled one of the most contentious issues — perhaps the one that most resonates with the voting public — other remaining concerns promise to keep the battle over short-term rentals alive.

Many of those concerns are being voiced by the group ShareBetter San Francisco, which, despite the back taxes being paid, says it plans to begin gathering signatures in April for a November ballot measure that would impose greater limits on rental days and improve enforcement.

What may factor into voters' decisions to back such an initiative will be how The City is enforcing its ordinance legalizing short-term rentals, those under 30 days, which went into effect Feb. 1. The regulations require anyone who provides short-term rentals to apply with The City, and receive an official registration number entered into a registry database.

The Planning Department, which oversees registration and enforcement, began accepting appointments for applicants on Jan. 27. As of Thursday there were approximately 350 appointments scheduled through the end of April and no actual registration issued yet, Planning Department spokeswoman Gina Simi said.

"We are fully booked through mid-March," Simi said.

Applications typically take 15 days to process. Airbnb listings alone have been estimated at 5,600 in San Francisco.

"We have no way of determining how many residents are currently engaged in the practice at this time," Simi said.

Supervisor David Campos has been among the most outspoken critics of the Airbnb regulations and the company's failure to pay back taxes. In a statement Wednesday, he noted the mounting pressure on the company to pay those back taxes "amounting to tens of millions of dollars" from "Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic County Central Committee of San Francisco and many others."

City officials had estimated the company's back taxes totaled about $25 million. The tax collector considers tax information confidential, and it is unclear if interest or penalties were included in the undisclosed sum.

Following the tax payment, Campos signaled that the short-rental debate isn't over.

"Back taxes, while critically important, is only one of the many issues that my office has with Airbnb and their practices, especially in light of today's housing crisis," he said. "We will be keeping the pressure on to ensure that this company not only plays by the rules, but also doesn't cause undue harm to the fabric of San Francisco."

Mayor Ed Lee and Board of Supervisors President London Breed said jointly in a separate statement that with the law having gone into effect, "now we must all work together to see that it works for neighborhoods, homesharers and residents alike."

But critics like Dale Carlson, a spokesman for ShareBetter SF, say the existing law lacks essential enforcement provisions. Carlson called it the "full Protection Act for Airbnb" noting that the platform could have been required to not list any rentals without a registration number or to turn over addresses of hosts as required by a recent law in Portland, Ore.

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