SF landlords could face legal fight over rentals on Airbnb, other services

Legal action might be in the works against landlords who use Airbnb and similar Web-based services to illegally rent out units to tourists and corporate clients for big short-term profits.

Since December, several tenant-rights groups have had ongoing meetings with City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office that may result in litigation against illegal rentals in San Francisco. Legal action could have ripple effects in the popular and lucrative industry.

Ted Gullickson of the San Francisco Tenants Union said his group and others have brought specific cases to the City Attorney’s Office and has had several meetings on the issue.

“They are clearly illegal,” said Gullickson of short-term rentals that violate zoning and apartment conversion laws.

The City Attorney’s Office would not comment directly on whether or not it plans to sue anyone, but did confirm that it’s looking into potential cases.

“I can only confirm that we are actively reviewing a number of potential cases,” said office spokesman Matt Dorsey.

Any lawsuits could be aimed at landlords who are abusing the system rather than at the companies providing the service, Gullickson said.

“There hasn’t been enough enforcement. That is what we are looking to the city attorney for. You gotta slam some of these bad actors,” said Sara Shortt, whose Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco was not part of the meetings.

Unless something is done, she said the end result will be a loss of rental units that creates incentives for evictions.

The City bars short-term rentals, and most residential units are not zoned for such use, but Planning Department code inspectors say finding and going after illegal tourism rentals is a cat-and-mouse game they are ill-equipped to play.

A statement from the Mayor’s Office said, “The mayor supports the growing sharing economy. Generally, it is using innovation and technology to generate new jobs and income for San Franciscans in every neighborhood and at every income level. It’s also providing more consumer choices to residents on everything from transportation, to housing, to everyday tasks.

“The mayor encourages modernizing our laws so that we can be flexible when it comes to providing more choice and opportunities for our residents and balance that with protecting public health and safety and taking into account other types of zoning regulations.”

In the meantime, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has been working for some time on legislation that would regulate tourist rentals by creating a taxation regime and allow a limited capacity that does not reduce rental stock.

Airbnb, which announced in October that it wanted to work with local officials to craft rules on paying hotel taxes in San Francisco and New York City, said in a statement Wednesday that it “has helped countless San Franciscans earn extra money, pay their bills and afford to stay in San Francisco. We require all hosts to certify that they will follow local rules and tax laws.

“We look forward to continuing our work with policymakers in San Francisco to set forth clear, fair laws that allow regular people to rent out their own homes, while giving back to the city that makes it possible.”

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