SF’s short-term rental enforcement comes under scrutiny

Airbnb is spending more than $8 million to defeat a November ballot measure that would strengthen short term rental regulations and bolster enforcement.

But supporters say Proposition F, which would cap nightly stays at 75 per year and allow The City to fine Airbnb and other hosting web sites for listing unregistered housing rentals, is needed to ensure enforcement.

Just days before the ballots are issued on Oct. 5, a hearing Wednesday at the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee delved into the effectiveness of The City’s new short term rental enforcement office and the tax collection process for those engaged in short-term rentals.

The hearing put Kevin Guy, the short-term rental office director, on the spot less than three weeks on the job.

Guy presented data about the office’s recent enforcement efforts. One of the glaring issues with the current law is simply the lack of registration. While thousands of hosts have listings on short term rental sites, only 667 have officially registered with The City as required. Of 866 applications submitted, 190 were rejected and 19 are currently pending review.

Guy said that the office’s enforcement is complaint driven. Of 177 complaints, which date back to Feb 1, 50 were investigated and closed and the remaining 127 remain under investigation.

A day before the hearing, which was called by Supervisor David Campos, a supporter of Prop. F, Guy’s office announced $155,000 in fines levied against nine violators of the law. Unlawful hosts are fined for each day they were not in compliance. The owner of 313 Eureka Street in the Castro, for example, was fined $77,440 for listings on short term rental site VRBO. The office currently has three employees with plans to hire three more.

Campos said the office seems understaffed, lacking goals and resources to tackle the situation. The office currently has three employees and interviews are said to be ongoing to fill three additional positions.

“You probably have an easier shot at winning the lottery than you have being the target of enforcement action by this agency,” Campos said.

Supervisor Mark Farrell noted the hearing falls amid an election season and an ongoing political debate. “I find it humorous to grill people and criticize so shortly after an agency was even created and expect and demand all the answers right now,” Farrell said. He added, “We all need to acknowledge this is going to take a period of time.”

Supervisor Eric Mar expressed disbelief that the complaints received by The City for short term rentals were so few. “It’s shocking that there are so few cases when we know just word of mouth in the Richmond District that there are tons of violations going on,” Mar said. He said The City needs to educate residents on how to file complaints.

“We are working aggressively to let people know that there are consequences for not following the rules,” Guy said.

Meanwhile, tax collector José Cisneros announced his office has made it easier for short term rental hosts to pay the required 14 percent hotel occupancy tax on room rates. That includes the creation of simplified web site with clearly stated rules and an agreement with Airbnb to help the tax collector better know if the hotel tax is being paid by users of Airbnb.

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