Airbnb San Francisco backlash: thousands petition for more oversight

More than 15,000 seek new limits on the number of nights hosts can offer visitors – but Airbnb advocates say middle-class owners are the ones most hurt

Employees of the social networking service Airbnb work in San Francisco.
Employees of the social networking service Airbnb work in San Francisco. Photograph: Ole Spata/dpa/Corbis

A battle over one of the country’s most expensive rental markets intensified this week when thousands of San Francisco residents petitioned the city to restrict home sharing websites like Airbnb.

More than 15,000 signed a petition calling for more oversight as well as new restrictions on the number of nights hosts can offer.

They are among critics of the booming digital home-sharing market who claim it has caused skyrocketing prices and evictions as landlords, including bigger property firms and developers, turf out residents looking for higher returns by using the websites.

Advocates of Airbnb, though, counter that restricting it just hurts middle-class owners who use it to rent out spare rooms and that it is bigger players in the rental market outside the home-sharing sites who are causing the high costs.

The signatures were on a petition delivered on Monday to the city’s planning department for a ballot initiative in November that would tighten up rules.

Currently Airbnb hosts can offer rentals for 90 days a year when not present at the home or as many as 265 days when they are there. The petition, however, proposes a 75-day limit on hosting, quarterly reports from platforms offering services, and civil court options if the planning department does not react to complaints in a timely manner.

The move comes only months after San Francisco put forward a number of regulations on hosts, which the activists – led by the San Francisco Tenants Union and the San Francisco Apartment Association - argue has done little to affect how people and corporations use apartments for short-term rentals.

“This is really a huge step to battling for people rather than against,” said Allen Giosso, a San Francisco-based housing activist who supports the petition’s goals. “We are going to finally go to the people to determine how people and companies can use apartments in this city and hopefully it will show that we need better rules and regulations. This city deserves to know more about what is going on and I hope voters see it this way.”

There are almost 10,000 Airbnb listings in the city out of approximately 400,000 in the market. Airbnb, which originated in the city and is valued at $25bn, and its San Francisco for Everyone campaign, demonstrated on Monday against the initiative, saying it will hurt everyday people.

The petition comes after Mayor Ed Lee’s announcement of a new Office of Short Term Rental Administration and Enforcement aimed at registering hosts and investigating violations. The city has already passed an ordinance limiting rentals to 120 days annually. It coincided with letters sent to 15 hosts for allegedly making residential units into 73 full-time hotels.

“I host people a few times a month, and it gives me a little extra spending money and eases the burden of high rent in the city,” said Howard Elm, who believes large companies and wealthy landlords are taking advantage of the shared economy concept. “This should be for average people and not companies who just develop a building or a few apartments and never step foot in them. That’s not sharing, and they are ruining a good idea for all of us because of greed.”

According to a subpoena by New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman, about 6% of Airbnb hosts were responsible for nearly 40% of revenue from 2010 through 2014.

Airbnb argues that regulations like the ballot initiative will hurt the middle class more than anyone else. “This is a Trojan horse proposal designed to effectively ban home sharing and make it harder for middle-class families to stay in the city they love,” said Christopher Nulty, a public affairs representative with Airbnb and spokesperson for the company’s San Francisco for Everyone campaign. “San Francisco already has common sense reforms that were put in place this year by the mayor and the board of supervisors. The poorly written measure is full of loopholes and language intended to trick voters, including provisions that would outlaw in-law units rentals, create different rules for different communities and make San Francisco the first city in the country to encourage neighbors to spy on their neighbors.”

Although San Francisco has become the focal point in the battle over home-sharing, other cities in the US are establishing their own regulations. Santa Monica, an affluent city near Los Angeles, passed in May a new ordinance that requires the host to be present when hosting someone. It will also levy a 14% hotel tax on hosts and will require business licenses, free of charge, for hosts.

New York City has similar restrictions on short-term rentals. Unless the property is a licensed bed-and-breakfast or similar establishment, the host must be present. Fines for violations range from $1,000 to $5,000. European countries like France and Germany are also looking at cracking down on the short-term rental market.

New Orleans has passed similar restrictions as well, prohibiting property owners from renting a room for less than 30 days, or less than 60 days in the popular French Quarter. But Airbnb continues to argue regulation is hurting average people the most.

“Now, more than ever, we should be focused on making it possible for middle-class families to stay in this city and contribute to the community. Elected officials, business and civic leaders have joined together with our community of thousands of middle class hosts to oppose this harmful measure,” added Nulty.

According to the website Zumper, which details rental prices across the country, the median one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,460. The result of increasing rental prices has been a string of evictions, and housing activists and citizens are worried that if action is not taken to deliver affordable housing for the middle class, the wealth gap in the city will continue to grow. It is currently on par with Rwanda and nearing Guatemala in terms of inequality.

“I honestly don’t know what would happen if I got evicted,” said Greg, a 42-year-old writer in San Francisco’s Sunset District. “I know that at least two apartments in my building are only on Airbnb and that the landlord makes more money that way than on traditional rentals. I don’t think it’s fair.”

There is a real sense of uncertainty among many of the city’s longtime residents, who are concerned that if the government doesn’t take action soon, evictions will continue to rise and more and more people will be booted out in order for property owners to earn even more, which housing activists say would be at the cost of residents.