Tenants target Airbnb rentals before hearings on regulatory legislation

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Sticker that SFTU plans to place on buildings with illegally converted apartments all over San Francisco.

As the San Francisco Planning Commission prepares for an Aug. 7 hearing on Sup. David Chiu’s widely watched legislation to legalize and regulate short-term apartment rentals through Airbnb and similar companies, the San Francisco Tenants Union tomorrow [Tues/29] launches a “citizen enforcement” campaign against these currently illegal rentals.

Seeking to highlight the fact that “hundreds of tenants have been evicted and thousands of rent-controlled apartments in San Francisco have been illegally converted to hotel rooms in violation of two San Francisco laws,” SFTU announced it will begin posting signs on illegally converted buildings to warn tourists that the rentals are displacing city residents.

The campaign starts tomorrow at noon at 1937 Mason Street, a three-unit building where SFTU says all tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act so the units could be rented out through Airbnb and other online rental services. It’s the latest step in SFTU’s campaign to highlight illegal conversions, filing more than 50 complaints with the city and threatening further legal action. [UPDATE: A senior Airbnb official told the Guardian that no Airbnb hosts have rented out units at this address. Gullicksen said the units were rented out through VRBO.com, an Airbnb competitor].

“San Francisco is facing a severe housing crisis with soaring rents and evictions,” said SFTU Director Ted Gullicksen said in a press release. “It’s intolerable that the City is tolerating thousands of illegal conversions and thus facilitating hundreds of evictions.”

Apartment rentals of less than 30 days have long been illegal under city laws, including Administrative Code 41A, in order to protect the city’s rental stock for permanent residents. SFTU worked with Chiu’s office in crafting legislation that would legalize short-term rentals in residential areas but set a number of conditions, including a requirement for hosts to register with the city and limit rentals to no more than 90 days per year.

Airbnb is headquartered in San Francisco, but it has long defied city law and refused to collect required transient occupancy taxes on its rentals even after the city definitely ruled they were owed. The company pledged to finally start collecting the taxes sometime this summer and it has sought to make over its scofflaw public image with new branding and outreach efforts.

But with the company facing similar criticisms of its business model in New York City, Berlin, and other cities with strong housing demand, San Francisco’s regulatory effort is expected to be a high-stakes and high-profile struggle that will ultimately be decided by the Board of Supervisors, probably sometime this fall.

Meanwhile, some enterprising young disrupters have decided use Airbnb and state laws protecting tenants to start squatting in the properties of some of their hosts, creating big legal headaches for the owners and payoffs for the squatters. And just because we at the Bay Guardian were the first newspaper to suggest this idea, we seek neither blame nor credit.