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Airbnb: A breach of neighborhood privacy

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Airbnb rentals are seriously impacting the affordability and availability of housing in San Francisco. There is widespread agreement that the legislation passed last year by the Board of Supervisors is inadequate to address the problems Airbnb is causing across The City. New limits are needed to curb Airbnb’s adverse impact on housing and neighborhoods.

Every independent analysis has reached the same conclusion: Any limitation on the number of nights a residential unit can be rented to tourists will be unenforceable without regular rental activity reports to city officials from the people and companies offering these accommodations.

Airbnb complains sharing its data with enforcement agencies would be a “breach of privacy.” That is a groundless, phony issue. It’s fear-mongering, plain and simple.

All kinds of businesses are required by law to report data on all kinds of activities to a variety of government agencies. Financial institutions, for example, must report cash transactions of $10,000 or more, and pharmacies must report any prescriptions for narcotic, amphetamines and a plethora of other drugs. None of these businesses complain about “invasions of privacy.”

Even Airbnb reports customer data, sending the IRS names, addresses, Social Security numbers and annual rental income for its hosts. In fact, Airbnb’s Terms of Service (which all its hosts and guests accept) specifically allow the company to report data to governments for tax purposes and enforcement of local laws.

If Airbnb is willing to share data with the federal government, how can it claim doing so with local governments is “intrusive” and a violation of customer privacy?

Airbnb also claims that it’s “unreasonable to burden Internet companies with enforcement of local laws.” But no one in San Francisco (or Portland or Santa Monica or any other city regulating short-term rentals) is proposing that. Enforcement authority and responsibility will and should remain with government agencies. It’s perfectly reasonable to require corporations like Airbnb to share the data governments need to identify potential violations of their laws. In fact, it’s common.

There is broad public support for limiting the number of nights residential units can be rented to tourists. What’s the point of setting a cap on rental nights if the Planning Department isn’t given the tools to monitor compliance? It isn’t as if the agency can inspect every short-term rental unit every night of the week.

Planning Department staff was very clear: without regular reports on the number of nights residential tourist accommodations are rented, the law — any law — is unenforceable. And so long as it remains unenforceable, San Francisco will continue losing thousands and thousands of affordable housing units to illegal hotels.

Let’s not forget about the very real violation of the privacy of other tenants and neighbors living near short-term residential rentals. Isn’t a constant stream of strangers an invasion of their privacy, of their right to the quiet enjoyment of their homes and neighborhood?
Airbnb and its hosts are running businesses and they should be regulated like any other business.

There’s no excuse for granting them special favors and exemptions. Contact members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to urge them to pass effective regulations for Airbnb rentals.

Ken McEldowney is executive director of Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based national consumer advocacy and education membership organization.

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