Airbnb and other companies that facilitate illegal short-term apartment rentals to tourists visiting San Francisco need to engage in a more honest and direct dialogue with this city's political leaders and stakeholders, something that became clear during last week's Planning Commission hearing on legislation that would legalize and regulate short-term sublets.
This is a complicated, vexing issue that defies simple solutions, as Board of Supervisors President David Chiu learned as he and his aides spent more than year developing the legislation. They did a pretty good job at striking a balance between letting people occasionally rent out their homes and preventing Airbnb from being used to remove apartments from the already strained local housing market.
A key provision for striking that balance was to limit rentals to no more than 90 nights per year, but the Planning Commission — dominated by appointees from Mayor Ed Lee, who has long coddled Airbnb's scofflaw approach to the city (see "Into thin air," 8/6/13) — removed that provision, which the Board of Supervisors should reinstate.
The commission also seemed to side with landlords who want to prevent their tenants from renting out rooms, calling for landlords to be notified when their tenants seek to become Airbnb hosts, another provision the board should reject. Landlords using Airbnb to get around rent control laws is at least as bad as tenants who violate their leases by subletting rooms, and this legislation shouldn't favor one group over the other.
If the city decides to end its decades-old ban on short-term apartment rentals, it should have a compelling reason to do so. Maybe we want to allow struggling city residents to make some extra money while they're out of town, or to have some flexibility in renting out rooms without taking on permanent tenants, which are legitimate if difficult policy questions.
But it seems like much of the discussion is about how to rein in the widespread violation of city housing and tax laws caused by Airbnb, which has refused requests to share more of its occupancy data, dodged its obligation to collect the city's transient occupancy tax, and failed to even send a high-level representative to last week's hearing. Yet the legislation would require the company's cooperation to help enforce the regulations.
If Airbnb and its hosts want the city to legalize lucrative short-term rentals in San Francisco, then the company should be willing to engage in high-level public discussions with city leaders to shape this important legislation, rather than simply whipping its hosts into a libertarian frenzy with deceptive public relations campaigns.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has gotten rich with a business model that is illegal in its home city, so the very least he can do is show up at City Hall next month to make a good faith effort to help solve the divisive problems that his company is creating.