I agree with the smiling actors in Airbnb’s commercials — sharing is good. And something important needs to be shared with the people of San Francisco: Corporate influence on our laws has reached a dangerous level in City Hall, and both our housing stock and ethics are in danger of being eroded.
Last October, when then-Supervisor David Chiu introduced legislation claiming to “regulate” Airbnb, there was a collective eye roll from housing and planning advocates. Chiu has close ties to Ron Conway, a major investor in Airbnb, and ethics filings show that Chiu met with Airbnb lobbyists more than 50 times as his office drafted legislation that gave the appearance of regulating short-term rentals but left major loopholes that made it impossible for The City to enforce the law.
In the past five years, Ron Conway and other Airbnb investors have donated over $1 million to committees working to elect Airbnb-friendly members of the Board of Supervisors. These supervisors voted down multiple amendments that would have closed loopholes in the law and made Airbnb pay $25 million in back taxes owed to The City. Mayor Ed Lee, who counts Conway as one of his closest advisers and biggest donors, then signed Airbnb’s bill into law. It would have been a major coup for the tech giant, except for one thing: Nobody fell for it.
The Planning Department has made it abundantly clear that it can’t enforce Airbnb’s law without closing its loopholes. Airbnb’s legislation requires short-term rental hosts to register with the Planning Department before they can legally post on Airbnb. What the legislation doesn’t do is have any consequence whatsoever if websites post rentals that aren’t registered.
There are somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 San Francisco rentals currently listed on Airbnb (we don’t know the exact number because under Airbnb’s law, short-term rental platforms are not required to share data with The City). Only 170 hosts have actually registered with the Planning Department since the law was passed. And why would they? Unless Airbnb is fined for posting illegal rentals they’re going to continue making money hand over fist and ignoring the toothless law written on their behalf.
In the months since Airbnb’s legislation passed there’s been a growing movement worldwide to push back against Airbnb’s army of corporate lobbyists and billion-dollar astroturf campaigns.
Recent polls have also shown that an overwhelming majority of San Franciscans want meaningful regulation to protect our neighborhoods from becoming hotels and to preserve our rental stock. Airbnb has seen the polls and knows that if it doesn’t act fast, the people of San Francisco will override their carefully crafted majority on the Board of Supervisors by regulating Airbnb at the ballot box. It’s no longer an option for the anti-regulation politicians in City Hall to pretend that they’ve done something about the Airbnb problem — the people of San Francisco aren’t stupid.
Last month, my office introduced, with supervisors John Avalos and Eric Mar, amendments that would once and for all close the loopholes in Airbnb’s legislation. If these commonsense amendments are rejected by the Board of Supervisors or the mayor, a coalition of advocates is prepared to take these amendments to the people of San Francisco on the ballot this November.
Last week, housing and planning advocates were once again rolling their eyes as one of the biggest supporters of Airbnb’s legislation, the mayor, announced that he’s had a change of heart and now wants to see Airbnb meaningfully regulated. Lee has introduced legislation that once again has the appearance of regulating short-term rentals but, without fines for websites that post illegal rentals, leaves major loopholes that make it impossible for The City to enforce. What’s more, Lee’s Planning Department, which had previously insisted numerous times on the record that data from short-term rental companies is essential to enforcing laws, did an about-face and is now claiming that collecting data would be unfair to Airbnb.
San Franciscans should be watching this vote carefully. Are we the kind of city that lets billion-dollar companies break our laws, shirk our taxes and write our laws? Or will we show the rest of the world that innovation in the city of technology doesn’t mean the abandonment of commonsense.
David Campos is a member of the Board of Supervisors representing District 9.