On Guard: Planning Commission blew it; Airbnb proposal has no teeth 

The Planning Commission’s vote Thursday to go soft on Airbnb enforcement requirements pulls the teeth out of short-term housing rental regulations, rendering them worthless.

And lobbyists working behind the scenes on behalf of Airbnb should also raise eyebrows of San Franciscans who may wonder whom among our city officials have been bought by the tech giant and its allies.

The Planning Commission voted against recommending requiring short-term rentals (like Airbnb) ensure their customers are legitimate with The City, and to display verification of that online, in order to list rentals. That and other recommendations will now go to the Board of Supervisors, which will likely use the Planning Commission’s vote as political cover to vote for Airbnb’s interests. Without customer verification mechanisms, any laws against Airbnb would be “unenforceable,” Supervisor Jane Kim said at Thursday’s meeting.

Basically, The City can require hosts play by the rules, and actually live in the apartments they rent out. But if hosts don’t have to display their registration info online, the Planning Department will have no way to ensure the rules are being followed.

It’s like an honor system for obeying the law.

Airbnb was against the data requirement, and one lobbyist for the company, David Owen, told the commission the burden would be onerous. In reality, Airbnb knows it would lose money if scofflaw users were banned.

“This is the linchpin in the enforcement program,” AnMarie Rodgers, senior policy adviser at the Planning Department told the commission that night. Staffers practically begged the commission to vote for the enforcement mechanism.

Cautionary tales abound: One host profile is the perfect example of how an unregulated Airbnb market hurts all San Franciscans.

“My husband and I own over a dozen properties in San Francisco, so you don’t have to deal with a management company or agent,” Airbnb user Carolyne writes in her post for an available Airbnb rental. “This is a business for us. We do not live in these apartments.”

She took apartments for rent off the market, and instead rents them out exclusively on Airbnb for profit. She’s not “sharing” anything. This is exactly the kind of Airbnb host the Planning Department would crack down on if Airbnb was required to police its users.

There are potentially thousands of people doing this. Alex Marqusee of the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy conducted a study for the Planning Department and presented it at Thursday’s meeting. With nearly 5,000 units on Airbnb’s platform in San Francisco, he said a good chunk of the bad actors may take housing away from the 10,000 units available for rent in San Francisco.

So the next time you have trouble finding in apartment in San Francisco, you can thank Airbnb, at least partially, for your woes.

Fixing this lame-duck enforcement is why the Planning Commission sat through a marathon 10-hour meeting to vote to approve 16 recommendations to tweak Airbnb regulations.

Tellingly, most of the votes split 4-3 out of the seven member commission, with the dissenting four votes coming from commissioners who were appointed by the mayor. Why? Readers of my column should know of Mayor Ed Lee’s influence from billionaire Airbnb investor Ron Conway. Now it’s easy to see how that money may influence votes.

Mayoral-appointed commissioners risk not being reappointed if they vote against the mayor’s interests.

Five out of the 16 Airbnb votes were split 4-3, with commissioners Christine Johnson, Richard Hillis, Rodney Fong and Michael Antonini representing positions favorable to Airbnb on five of those votes. All were appointed by the mayor.

Also tellingly, Airbnb’s high-powered lobbyist, David Owen, met exclusively with Fong, Hillis and Antonini, according to Ethics Commission filings.

The only time one of the mayor’s appointees voted out of lock-step with the others was when Johnson voted to approve recommending the controversial verification requirement. Hours later, she asked for a second vote, and switched her aye to a nay.

Johnson’s voting take-back defanged the Airbnb regulations. It is possible Airbnb officials or the Mayor’s Office communicated with her by text or email to tell her to change her vote, insiders told us. We emailed Johnson to ask why she changed her vote, but she isn’t talking.

“The staff pleaded with us on that one,” Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards told me. “ It doesn’t matter. We might as well have recommended no change. We’re back to a law that’s unenforceable again.”

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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