If Mayor Ed Lee signs amendments to San Francisco’s short-term rental ordinance, hosts’ due process rights will be severely compromised. (Courtesy photo)

In City Hall’s battle with Airbnb, hosts are the casualties

Jack and Miguel (not their real names) joined me recently for a meeting with their supervisor. We wanted to talk to her about changes to the short-term rental ordinance the Board of Supervisors was shortly to consider.

While the supervisor had already known them — she married them in City Hall that summer — she did not know they were short-term rental hosts, nor that since their marriage, Miguel had developed kidney disease plunging them into financial stress that threatens their ability to keep their home, but for the extra income home sharing provided.

For years, our local politicians have played on the fears of the housing crisis, targeting Airbnb to score political points and win votes. The bitter and expensive fight over an anti-home-sharing ballot measure, Proposition F, last November became a heated issue in the campaigns of local officials. Voters ultimately rejected Prop. F but overturned the ideological balance in City Hall.

Recently and before the latest amendments were introduced, supervisors passed another law that criminalizes platforms like Airbnb for listing unregistered homes. Airbnb swiftly filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the law. Supervisors were forced to rewrite the law, but the legal battles continued and shortly afterward, the supervisors introduced these new restrictive changes.

Lost among those battles are the lives of hosts like Jack and Miguel, who have neither the voice nor the resources to fight against threats to their right to use their most important asset — their home — to keep their heads above water.

On Nov. 29, the supervisors passed these drastic amendments to the ordinance. If Mayor Ed Lee signs the legislation, home sharing will be cut to 60 days a year for new hosts, and their due process rights will be severely compromised.

Future hosts would no longer be able to count on home sharing to save their homes, to help them pursue their dream jobs, to put their kids through college or to help them through hard times.

Supporters of these changes don’t argue that these measures are needed because home sharing causes or substantially worsens the housing crisis. (It doesn’t.) Instead, they argue that too many hosts are unregistered and that these measures will fix this. (They won’t.)

It’s true, the registration rate needs improvement. But these extreme measures will only harm hosts like Jack and Miguel who may find themselves in need of extra income. Here’s why these changes are a bad idea:

1. It would restrict home sharing even more than Prop. F.

Prop. F, which voters resoundingly rejected by double digits as too extreme, would have limited home sharing to 75 days. This 60-day cap is even more extreme, amounting to a 305-day reduction on current hosted limits and a 30 percent reduction on current unhosted limits.

City Hall needs to respect the will of the voters and stop exploiting this issue for political gain.

2. The amendment does nothing to improve registration rates and address The City’s complex registration process.

In fact, it would discourage registration. If City Hall wants more hosts to register, it makes no sense to pass a law that harshly reduces home sharing rights from current levels. This sends a punitive message that will drive hosts away from registration.

Given the red tape and high costs of registration, many hosts will decide rationally that, for 60 days a year, it’s simply not worth it to register.

There are much better, less harmful ways to incentivize and make registration easier. We have shared these ideas with supervisors. Even the Director of the Office of Short-Term Rentals agrees they have merit. Airbnb has publicly stated its willingness to go further than they have ever agreed to before in sharing user data to help enforcement and registration.

It’s time for Mayor Lee to send a strong message to the supervisors that they should put aside their animosity toward a single company, to stop using the lives of hosts as a playground for their political games and start working on real solutions.

Peter Kwan is the founder of Home Sharers of San Francisco and co-chair of Home Sharers Democratic Club.

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