On Guard: Airbnb regulatory process rigged from the start

Natasha Dangond/Special to the S.F. ExaminerSupervisor David Campos is shown during a Monday rally for short-term rental reform.

For Airbnb, new proposed regulations resemble home- sharing hell. But San Franciscans should defend our dwindling housing stock.

Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms may see their regulations refined as two competing proposals go before the Board of Supervisors for vote Tuesday.

Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Mark Farrell’s watered down home-sharing regulations will go toe-to-toe against Supervisor David Campos’ proposal, which tasks Airbnb users with posting a city-provided registration number on Airbnb and other home-sharing websites. Airbnb is a digital go-between that allows users to rent out spare rooms, or an apartment. It’s a nice way for people struggling in the new Dickensian San Francisco to make ends meet.

But The City needs tighter regulations to clamp down on bad actors who twist “home sharing” into “home hotel-ing.” These power Airbnb users take apartments off the rental market, exacerbating San Francisco’s rental crisis.

Enforcement of registration numbers under Campos’ proposal should be simple for a company worth $20 billion, Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards told me.

“When you put that [registration] number in the field, it goes to a database and comes back and says ‘good,’ just like a credit card,” he said. Airbnb abusers would easily be tracked.

The mayor’s proposal is more old school by comparison. It relies on pursuing neighbor complaints, a process so cumbersome Richards called it “ridiculous.”

It should be a no-brainer for the Board of Supervisors to support Campos’ proposal. They won’t, of course.

From the start, this regulatory process was as crooked as Lombard Street. But this Airbnb acrimony is wholly unlike the outcry in New York state, where officials readily slap back bad actors.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed Airbnb for user data, and found two thirds of the more than 19,000 Airbnb users in New York City were illegal sublets.

The New York investigation also revealed why Airbnb seems so keen to protect users who abuse its platform.

The top five New York Airbnb hosts by number of listings rented out 80, 35, 31, 29 and 28, units on Airbnb, the attorney general’s office found. Almost half of Airbnb’s $1.45 million in 2010 revenue in New York City came not from grandmas renting out spare rooms, but Airbnb entrepreneurs who had more than three listings on the site.

Airbnb declined to provide us numbers, but it stands to reason it has similarly large amounts of money to lose in San Francisco should The City decide to crack down.

An Airbnb spokesman told me via email that Schneiderman’s information was “inaccurate.” But declined to provide “accurate” data to verify this. In contrast to New York, San Francisco city leaders moved behind the scenes to protect Airbnb.

A San Francisco planning commissioner, Christine Johnson, was the swing vote to recommend Campos’ tighter restrictions on Airbnb last month. Only minutes after her vote, the Mayor’s Office sent Johnson a text message expressing displeasure. Johnson then changed her vote to side with the mayor.

Airbnb Regional Head of Public Policy David Owen (a former City Hall staffer) also wrote a good deal of then-Supervisor David Chiu’s initial legislation to regulate home-sharers, reports found.

“It really smacks of Airbnb being directly in City Hall,” said Sara Shortt, director of the Housing Rights Committee and member of ShareBetter SF. Of course it is.

Ron Conway, Airbnb’s big-time-billionaire investor, sinks bucko philanthropic dollars into Mayor Ed Lee’s pet projects. We might as well hang a “For Sale” sign on City Hall’s dome.

The stakes for all San Franciscans are high. A report by the Budget Legislative Analyst show as many as 1,960 units are taken off the housing market by Airbnb bad actors.

The conservative democratic wing of the board is expected to vote down Campos’ proposal, 6-5. It doesn’t have to be this way. The supervisors must choose betweeen two sets of regulations Tuesday. They should choose the one that actually works.

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

AirBnBBay Area NewsBoard of SupervisorsJoe FitzgeraldNew York City

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