Residents vs. tourists

How many rent-controlled apartments is Airbnb taking off SF's housing market?

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steve@sfbg.com

Evictions and displacement have become San Francisco's top political issues, amplified by protests against tech companies that are helping gentrify the city. Yet Airbnb, which facilitates the conversion of hundreds of San Francisco apartments into de facto hotel rooms, has so far avoided that populist wrath.

Tenants use the online, short-term rentals to help make rent in this increasingly expensive city, a point that the company often emphasizes.

"For thousands of families, Airbnb makes San Francisco more affordable," Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas wrote to the Guardian by email, citing a company survey finding that "56 percent of hosts use their Airbnb income to help pay their mortgage or rent."

But it's also true that Airbnb allows hundreds of rent-controlled apartments to be removed from the permanent housing market — in violation of local tenant, zoning, tax, and other laws — something that has united tenant, landlord, hotel, and labor groups against it (see "Into thin air," 8/6/13).

"The problem is Airbnb is so easy and attractive that you can take a unit out from under rent control forever," San Francisco tenant attorney Joseph Tobener told the Guardian.

"We're getting 15 calls a week on Airbnb," he said, describing four categories of complaints: landlords evicting tenants to increase rents through Airbnb, tenants complaining about neighbors using Airbnb, tenants being evicted for getting caught illegally subletting through Airbnb, and Airbnb hosts who can't get guests to leave (city law gives even short-term residents full tenant rights, except in hotels).

There isn't good public data on how many units are being taken off the market, but Airbnb generally lists well over 1,000 housing units in San Francisco at any given time, with its smaller competitors (such as Roomorama and VRBO) adding hundreds more.

The San Francisco Rent Board listed 326 no-fault evictions (Ellis Act, owner move-in, capital improvement) in its 2012-13 annual report. That number is almost certain to rise in the 2013-14 report due out in March, and it is compounded by an unknown number of buyouts that pressure tenants to voluntarily leave, all of it creating a displacement crisis that has galvanized the city.

"Isn't it far more likely that more units are being lost [from the rental market] through Airbnb?" San Francisco Magazine recently quoted a UC Berkeley professor as saying in an article questioning whether Ellis Act evictions are really a "crisis."

So Airbnb is clearly having a big impact on the city's affordable housing crisis. Yet Airbnb is largely flying under the political radar in its hometown and ducking questions about its impacts.

"Airbnb has all the statistics we need to assess its impacts on the city's housing market," Tobener said. The company refuses to disclose such data. Airbnb's customers need to consider their impacts to the city's affordable housing crisis, Tobener added, because "there are social consequences to the decisions we make."

 

STALLED IN LIMBO

Last year I discovered Airbnb was flouting a ruling that it should be paying the city's 15 percent transient occupancy tax ("Airbnb isn't sharing," 3/19/13), a nearly $2 million per year tax dodge.

Yet Airbnb, which has quickly grown from a small start-up into a company worth nearly $3 billion, has some powerful friends in Mayor Ed Lee and venture capitalist Ron Conway, who invests in both Airbnb and Mayor Lee's political campaigns and committees.

So the company has stonewalled Guardian inquiries for the last year as it has worked with Board of Supervisors President David Chiu on legislation that tries to bring the company's business model into compliance with local laws. That hasn't been easy, as Chiu told us.