City agencies defend their slow response to Airbnb's illegal rentals

Tourists can choose from nearly 5,000 San Francisco homes on Airbnb.

More information has been coming out about how Airbnb is used to convert San Francisco apartments into tourist rentals — including an interesting study reported by the San Francisco Chronicle last weekend — in advance of next month’s hearings on legislation to legalize and regulate short-term rentals.

But questions remain about why the city agencies in charge of regulating such “tourist conversions,” which have long been illegal under city law, have done so little to crack down on the growing practice. For more than two years, we at the Guardian have been publicly highlighting such violations, which have finally caught fire with the public in the last six months.

Even Mayor Ed Lee — who has helped shield Airbnb from scrutiny over its tax dodging and other violations, at least partially because they share an investor in venture capitalist Ron Conway — has finally said the city should pass legislation to regulate the company, as Sup. David Chiu is trying to do.

But attorney Joseph Tobener, who has represented clients evicted to facilitate Airbnb rentals and has brought a number of such lawsuits on behalf of San Francisco Tenants Union, still can’t get city departments to issue notices of violation even for the most egregious offenders that he’s suing, an administrative prerequisite to filing a lawsuit.

“The Department of Building Inspection and the Department of Planning need to start shutting these violators down by enforcing the existing laws, or we need stricter laws that allow us to pursue our claims without City approval.  Two months ago, we sent our requests to pursue landlords on behalf of the SFTU.  Then, radio silence.  Two months of utter inaction. Someone in charge does not want to see us close the loophole that is allowing landlords to take units out of our housing stock,” Tobener said.

The Chronicle investigation found that in San Francisco, 1,278 Airbnb hosts in San Francisco were managing multiple properties (Chiu’s legislation would limit hosts to their primary residence for just 90 rental nights per year), including 160 entire homes that tourists appear to be renting out full-time. Overall, the paper counted 4,798 properties for rent in San Francisco through Airbnb, 2,984 of which were entire homes, belying the “shared housing” label favored by the company and its supporters.

And even though groups like the San Francisco Apartment Association and SFTU say they have been actively trying to get the city departments to crack down on such illegal uses over the last year, representatives for DBI and the Planning Department say they’ve received few complaints and therefore issued few violations, while also saying they need more resources to regulate the problem, something Chiu’s legislation would begin to help address.

“Our enforcement process is complaint based and we investigate each complaint that is received by our Department (more than 700 per year).  Complaints regarding short term rentals that result in the loss of housing are prioritized for enforcement,” Planning Department spokesperson Gina Simi told the Guardian.

She said that property owners are given the opportunity to correct a violation before being cited, something that she said happens in about 80 percent of cases.

“A case is opened for every complaint received. Since March 2012, we have had approximately 120 enforcement cases for Short Term Rentals.  In each case, notices were sent to the property owner and approximately half (54) have been abated and half (66) are active cases.  Many of these (approximately 30) were received since the beginning of April 2014,” she told us when we inquired about the issue last month.

As for Tobener’s charge that city agencies are dragging their feet and making it difficult for his clients to pursue relief from the courts, she said, “The ability for interested parties to pursue the matter through civil action (for injunctive or monetary relief) following the filing of a complaint and determination of a violation is a process outlined in Chapter 41A, which is enforced by the Department of Building Inspection.  Enforcement under the Planning Code does not allow for interested parties to seek civil action.”

But DBI spokesperson William Strawn said his department hasn’t received many complaints, claiming to have gotten just three total through the end of last year.

“A few weeks ago, per Mr. Tobener, we did receive seven complaints, with documentation, that the Housing Division is still reviewing; and, per [DBI Chief Housing Director Rosemary] Bosque, we also recently received an additional seven complaints – for a current total of 14 – that also are under review and being scheduled for administrative review hearings, as required by Chapter 41A,” Strawn told the Guardian.

But he also pointed his finger back at the Planning Department as the agency that should be handling problems related to the short-term stays facilitated by Airbnb.

“Given that these ‘duration of stay’ issues are Planning Code matters – a point we have made to Supervisor Chiu, and which I know you discussed with the Planning Director {John Rahaim] during Supervisor Chiu’s media availability on this issue a few weeks ago – the role of the Building Department in the enforcement of these types of complaints in our relatively new Internet Age will require guidance from the City Attorney,” Strawn told us.

Indeed, in response to a Guardian question about why the Planning Department seems to have ignored violations facilitated by Airbnb, Rahaim said that his department hasn’t had the resources, tools, and authority to address the problem, even though, “This is an important issue we’ve been hearing about for quite some time.”


As noted in this post, there are "160 entire homes that tourists appear to be renting out full-time."

According to the 2010 US Census there are 377,000 households in San Francisco, so approximately 4/100 of 1% (0.04%) have been lost. 160 out of 377,000. The other 99.6% are still there.

Go ahead, double or triple it if you want to. 12/100 of 1%. Fine.

Not everyone has a hard-on for Ron Conway, which explains why it is getting the level of attention that it does.

Effective people would rather solve the problem than tell us for the 1,000th time that Ron Conway is a supporter of Ed Lee. What about the other 34,999 cities in which Airbnb operates? Does Conway control those mayors also?

Thanks for the Chronicle that has supplied us with facts. Try again, SFBG. You won't always be a joke.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

You should have read the Chronicle series. It was quite good, with outstanding data extraction and graphs.

"Although the company refuses to release numbers, a data analysis commissioned by The Chronicle found almost 5,000 San Francisco homes, apartments, and private or shared rooms for rent via Airbnb. Two-thirds were entire houses or apartments, showing how far Airbnb has come from its couch-surfer origins, and contradicting its portrayal as a service for people who rent out a spare room and interact with guests."

Let's also remember that Airbnb is merely one company out of many that provides short-term rental hook-ups. The Chronicle data only included Airbnb, so let's triple the 5,000 to 15,000, which is a hell of a lot of units gone from the rental market for people who want to live and work in the city, and others who are paying up to 50% of their income for rent.

After reading the article it becomes clear that the short-term rental issue is not suited to one sentence analysis or snarky soundbites. Dozens of complex human economic interactions are driving the short-term rental market.

What seems clear from the SFBG article is that a new department is desperately needed to manage SF's housing stock, from issuing short-term rental permits, to policing conformance with housing and zoning laws, to managing oversight of regular DPH and DBI inspections of the short-term rentals, to abating prohibited housing uses. The Rent Board has been terrible at monitoring the large numbers of properties for illegal uses after certain no-fault evictions, so this is another policing function the new agency could take on.

For me the Chronicle article is solid proof Mayor Lee has thrown the door open to technology companies and foreign investors, which has resulted in astronomical SF rents, lost rental units to companies like Airbnb and thousands of evictions during his tenure. I doubt any single mayor in SF's history has ever made the city more expensive and unlivable for middle and lower income families than Mayor Lee.

Posted by guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

No, YOU should have read the article. I did, you obviously didn't.

They estimated a total of 5,000 Airbnb listings of all types. Obviously, not every listing equals a lost housing unit. Some are occasional and some are just extra rooms or beds.

When they estimated the number of units offered for rent full time they came up with the figure of 160 quoted in this post. I think they came up with another 140 shared units and 7 shared rooms.

But I understand that Progressives will claim that every one of the 5,000 Airbnb listing deprives the city of a full time housing unit. Tim Redmond already did it on his blog.

Those of us who prefer to tackle the issue from a reality based pperspective are learning that the number of units converted to hotels is much smaller and will plan accordingly.

Not to worry, there are enough of us reality based people around, so feel to make up whatever you wish if it makes you feel better.But at the end of the day it won't help your cause.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

be rented out long-term because that it is not attractive. They would be sold as TIC's, retained for personal use or be let short-term under the radar.

You cannot force owners to rent long-term if those owners don't want to do that, and they don't want to do that because of rent control.

A short-term let is more hassle than a long-term let, and no owner would freely choose it except that the alternative is dire.

Fix rent control and the "Airbnb problem" goes away.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:02 am

Absolutely. In anticipation, I now focus on 1-3 month business travelers. NEVER again will I risk having a long term tenant until the laws are reformed.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:01 am

Tech companies are happy to take out "permanent" short-term lets, and use it for temporary housing for new hires from out of town.

Less work than overnight B&B but none of the hassles of long-term tenancies and all the nonsense that goes with that.

I'll never rent to a long-term tenant again. Visiting academics, tourists and corporate lets are the way to fo.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:22 am

arbitrary attempt to make illegal various forms of home-sharing. It's not clear that a SF jury would buy that level of interventionism. so the city is prudent to go slow and, instead, establish a framework to legalize it as Chiu has advocated.

A jury would take into account that the city seeks to tax this activity even while they claim it is illegal. That doesn't add up.

I think most thinking people see little problem with the occasional sub-letting of one's home, especially if you own your home.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 5:20 pm

To those of you who think it's ok to break the law, you are lucky that the city is useless in enforcing the laws against illegal short term rentals.

The only people that are for this are people who are making money or saving money from them.

And no court would rule against a current law on the books. You are living in disneyland.

The recent court case in NYC is a clear example of that.

Posted by GuestBob on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

We turn a blind eye to that and yet they are against the law.

Or is that somehow different for some weird reason?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:03 am

Funny hearing progressives suddenly turning themselves into 'law and order' types over this. Waiting to hear, "without laws we're no better than savages."

And what's with all the pot smoking you see out in the open these days... that's agin' the law!

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 6:30 am

In their defense, they have not completely become law and order. Steven has consistently lobbied against the law concerning Stop signs for bicycles.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 6:58 am

He wants immunity for cyclists, protesters and Occupiers. He even thinks tenants who airbnb should not be evicted, while he wants to throw into prison owners who do airbnb

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 8:23 am

You commenters are missing the point. It's not that I or other progressives have suddenly turned into law-and-order types, it's the fact that the particular law being broken here was adopted for good reason, after a long struggle by progressives on behalf of the vast majority of San Franciscans against the narrow interests of property and capital. And the real impacts we're seeing as a result of Airbnb facilitating the breaking of this law illustrates why it was important in the first place. Without rent control, tens of thousands of working class people would be forced from San Francisco immediately. And if the city allows those who control property to bypass rent control and other tenant protections in favor of unregulated tourist rentals, and they can make more money doing so, then that will also feed the displacement of the very people that make this a diverse and interesting city. Perhaps there's a middle ground that will allow people to occasionally use Airbnb to make a little money on their homes while they're out of town, something our elected representatives will explore this summer. But when Airbnb and others services are used to permanently take housing away from the local residents who desperately need it, then that's a problem that the city should address by enforcing this law.  

Posted by steven on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:18 am

Steven, if the Guardian spent as much time plumbing the failure to express our agenda at the ballot box as you do trying to argue semantics with city and consultant paid trolls, we'd be well on our way to pulling out of free fall.

The only case to be made here of any value is to the voters.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:45 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:55 am

the laws you do not like are not?

What about the tens of thousands of illegal units in SF that are rented out? Should we enforce that law as well?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:49 am

I know that while wearing a business suit, if I were to publicly defecate in front of a Cop, I'd get a ticket a/o a summons.

Were I a dirtbag panhandler, the Cop would just shake their head and look the other way.

Posted by Right Wing Top on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:00 am

Read it again.

Overall, the paper counted 4,798 properties for rent in San Francisco through Airbnb, 2,984 of which were entire homes, belying the “shared housing” label favored by the company and its supporters.

That number is low. There are 22,000 listings in NYC. It is estimated that there are over 10,000 rentals in SF.

They hide this by stating 1000+ Rentals · San Francisco

Posted by GuestBob on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

Again Bob, you guys would be better off if you came up with hard data like the Chronicle did and not just say things like "it's low...estimates are...". It really doesn't help you cause.

But one thing i noticed is that you guys are REALLY bad at numbers. Absolutely remedial. For example, when you note that there are 22,000 listings in New York (unsourced) you obviously don't realize that there are also 3,000,000 households in New York City compared to 377,000 here. New York is about 8 times as big as San Francisco.

But I have a feeling that I am arguing with people who just feel that they have the right to make up whatever "estimates" they want and somehow they expect other people to believe them.

We don't believe you.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

Some people want to share their home. So what?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:04 am

"Our" housing stock?? Is Tobener really that confused? Last I checked, MY name is on title.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 8:09 pm

The distinction is meaningless to them.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:05 am

Progressives pluralize.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 7:12 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 8:27 am

Last time I checked, real estate isn't an asset that you can move out of the community where it's located, and it's not an asset that you can use however you see fit. You're not allowed to demolish the housing on your property without permission from the people's representatives and a good reason to do so. Hell, you can't allow your property to fall into a state of disrepair without the people's representatives fining you for doing so, and they can even decide to seize that property from you if they decide the public needs it, paying you only fair market value in the process. You property owners are a part of this community, just like we renters, and you have a legal obligation to be responsible stewards of our housing stock. And if you don't like it, you're free to sell your property and get the fuck out of town. 

Posted by steven on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:28 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:50 am

Whatever, steven, big talker. MY property is in much better condition now that there are no tenants here. They were the ones that threw trash everywhere, assuming someone else would clean up after them. They demolished the property, destroying fixtures and putting holes in the walls. They constantly clogged the plumbing, putting who knows what down the drains. NONE of that happens now that they're gone.

And guess what? The "community" is changing. Most of the rentals on my block are now owner occupied.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 11:14 am

This city is becoming prime, and that is no bad thing.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 11:58 am

Let's convert all SF buildings to owner-occupation and have the renters commute in from Oakland.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

the one thing that cannot be relocated away from the city's clutches and thereby indicate that you regard it as collateral for all your confiscatory policies.

It is that attitude that led the voters to overwhelming pass Prop13, to put limits on how taxes are levied on assets that cannot be moved away from your greedy grasp.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 6:40 am

The white male Republicans of the 1940s thought nothing of granting local government authority over what can be build where how and when.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 6:56 am

All governments do is that that freedom away.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 7:34 am

All governments do is that that freedom away.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 7:49 am

Governments take away our freedoms.

The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to restrict the government's ability to take away our basic freedoms.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 6:41 am

Apparently the old school mainline Republicans disagreed with your theoclassical libertarianism, that is why they passed statute that required localities to adopt land use plans.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 6:58 am

be so excessively over-extended. Certainly it was never envisaged that a city would try and stop someone sharing their home.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 7:26 am

Right, because old school Republicans wanted hotels to be sited next to their homes.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 7:35 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 7:44 am

Except that they are hotels and must pay TOT.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 7:54 am

hotel. And in any event, I dispute the applicability of the hotel tax as do 99,99% of Airbnb'ers, which is not enforced because the city knows it will probably not hold up in court.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 8:12 am

A tenant should not be able to rent any part of his unit without the landlords written approval. Who is liable if an airbnb renter is injured, or who is responsible if an airbnb renter used his access / key to rob another unit or does damage to the property. The landlords insurance would not cover any known illegal activities that the landlord knows or turns a blind eye to. Most leases in sf do not allow sub leasing and a max. of 30 days for guests. It may not be an issue now but it will need to be addressed before allowing tenants the right to profit from someone else's property

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 9:36 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:05 am

Can't run a hotel in zoning districts where hotels are not a permitted use and where there has been no formal change of use where hotels are permitted.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:02 am

I'm occasionally sharing my home.

Why do you care about that?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:16 am

Short-term rentals are illegal, whether you own your home or rent it. It's called an illegal tourist conversion, banned by SF Administrative Code Section 41A and other city laws, including planning and zoning codes. That's the point of this discussion we're having and Chiu's legislation. 

Posted by steven on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:32 am

the claim that occasionally sharing your home is against the law remains a theoretical issue TBD. I am confident that a SF jury would not wish to endorse such an invasive restriction.

The laws that apply to huge hotels do not apply to private homes

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:51 am

Yes, they may be illegal and that is one thing, but the fact that you're tying it to contributing it to the shortage of rentals in SF is another. You're not just fighting it because it's illegal (as other activities not enforced in SF) but you're fighting it because of the effect it is having on others acquiring or maintaining renter status and from what I've read and heard, that really is NOT a big problem in SF. Are people violating this law, yes but if you're going to fight it on the basis of it being illegal than stick to that and back it with some hard established facts.

This is a significant statement from the Chronicle report: "The bulk of San Francisco’s 3,785 hosts — 3,272, or 86.4 percent — had a single listing, buttressing Airbnb’s claim that most rent out their own places."

This tells me that the number of displaced 'renters' is not very high. Considering that also that 4 out of the top 10 hosts are actually City Inns/hotels or hostels also decreases that number of displaced significantly.

Again, your argument against it being illegal may be valid but basing your argument on the loss of rental units for potential residents seems an insignificant stretch. How about arguing the cyclist that run red lights, cut in front of cars, don't use the designated lanes and cause havoc on the streets instead. And yes, I cycle so I can say that!

Posted by GuestDon on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 11:23 am

rather than take on long-term tenants, I am STILL NOT going to rent it out long-term if I get stopped from doing that.

No way, and because of rent control.

I will TIC instead.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:01 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

Guest Don wrote -

This is a significant statement from the Chronicle report: "The bulk of San Francisco’s 3,785 hosts — 3,272, or 86.4 percent — had a single listing, buttressing Airbnb’s claim that most rent out their own places."

Perhaps I overlooked it, but did the Chronicle report indicate how many of the 86.4% were owners vs renters?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.