San Francisco users of the short-term rental site Airbnb will only be allowed to post listings at one address starting Nov. 1. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner file photo)

SF poised to require Airbnb to only list registered hosts, or pay fines

Nearly two years after legalizing short-term rentals like Airbnb, San Francisco is poised to start holding the companies accountable for illegal rentals.

Hosts are currently required to register with The City before they list a property on a short-term rental site. But websites do not have to verify if hosts are registered before allowing them to list on their sites, making it more challenging for The City to weed out illegal rentals, which are blamed for exacerbating the housing crisis.

That’s the loophole supervisors David Campos and Aaron Peskin want to close. Legislation they introduced earlier this year is slated to go before the Board of Supervisors next week after advancing out of a board committee Thursday.

The new law would require Airbnb and other short-term rental websites to post registration numbers on listings or email the number and name of the host to the Office of Short-Term Rentals, The City’s agency tasked with enforcing the regulations.

Failure to comply with the law would result in fines up to $1,000 per day.

“The weakness of the current law is the fact that corporate accountability is non-existent, corporate accountability is not a part of the equation,” said Campos, who likened his proposal to a rental car agency requesting to see a driver’s license before renting a car to a driver.

“After two years, we still have 75 percent of folks out of compliance,” he added.

Despite potential for a lawsuit, it appears the legislation has enough votes from supervisors to pass, though it’s unclear if it will have the eight votes needed to override a possible mayoral veto.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed put speculation to rest when she announced her support of the legislation during the meeting. She is considered an important seventh vote in favor of the proposal, adding to the six-member progressive bloc.

“I don’t think this legislation is unreasonable,” Breed said. “We’ve got to have a stronger system in place that goes after people who have entire units off the market for this purpose. That is definitely a huge problem in The City.”

That leaves supervisors Katy Tang, Scott Wiener, Mark Farrell and Malia Cohen as yet to take a position. Three of the supervisors said they were still reviewing the proposal.

“I’m still reviewing it, as well as the legal issues that have been raised regarding it,” Wiener wrote in a text message to the San Francisco Examiner. Farrell could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Lee has not taken a position on the legislation, said mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey. She noted, however, that voters rejected other similar short-term rental restrictions last year when Proposition F failed at the November 2015 ballot.

“The mayor will consider that also when reviewing this legislation,” Falvey said. “Mayor Lee established the Office of Short Term Rentals in 2015 and it has made progress in registering hosts and enforcing the law.”

That office’s head, Kevin Guy, said in the past 18 months 1,324 hosts have registered with The City as is required to engage in short-term rentals. That’s out of the thousands that are active as hosts.

Before the committee hearing Thursday, Airbnb posted a blog entry on its website denouncing the proposal and questioning its legality.

“Many online privacy and technology law experts believe the new proposal conflicts with important Federal laws intended to protect and encourage a free and open Internet,” the blog entry said. “Instead of simplifying and strengthening San Francisco’s existing rules, this proposal would most likely result in more delay and confusion.”

But Campos has dismissed such concerns, and Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner provided the legal grounds by which The City would defend itself if sued over the law.

“This ordinance does not regulate the content of any posted information on the website of a hosting platform,” Givner said. “Rather, it regulates the business activities of the hosting platforms. It extends the type of information they must collect in order to engage in booking services and doesn’t regulate the content of the website.”

Should the law fail at the board, Campos hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to the ballot this November with a short-term rental regulation measure.

Also, Airbnb hasn’t ruled out a ballot measure of its own.

Airbnb spokesperson David Owen said he was “disappointed” the board advanced the proposal instead of working with the company which is “committed to helping solve the big issues.”

Owen said he couldn’t comment on whether Airbnb would sue, but he pointed to the legal concerns raised.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the legislation Tuesday, which is also Election Day.

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