Lee, who toured Airbnb's huge new headquarters space at 888 Brannan with CEO Brian Chesky on March 4, had no comment directly on whether the company was paying — or should be paying — its hotel taxes. Spokesman Francis Tsang would only say: "The Mayor supports the emerging sharing economy and efforts to support it within appropriate regulation to ensure public safety. The Mayor also believes that laws and regulations should occasionally be reviewed for continued effectiveness and application in light of changing technologies and economic/cultural trends."
San Francisco and other California cities have been battling Internet-based companies over the collection of hotel taxes for years. San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Monica, and Anaheim are together suing Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, and other companies that do hotel reservations over the issue, with LA County Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle ruling against the cities last month. Appeals are expected in the case.
The issues are different in that case because the hotels are still paying the tax, based on discounted room rates charged after the companies collect their fees. Airbnb, Vacation Rentals By Owner (vrbo.com) and other companies have contested the requirement that they pay any local taxes on their service.
Cisneros told us he made it clear last year through hearings and a ruling interpreting city tax law that Airbnb must pay the Transient Occupancy Tax: "We work very hard to collect all taxes and to make sure everyone is clear on when taxes apply, which is why we did these hearings."
Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has been in negotiations with Airbnb, similar companies, the Hotel Council of San Francisco, and other interested parties to develop legislation to address the "legal grey area" they occupy, as The Economist magazine put it in a March 9 cover story on "The sharing economy."
As I explored in my own investigation last year ("The problem with the sharing economy," 5/1/12), Airbnb's basic business model often runs afoul of city laws (such as the ban on charging guests more than the tenant pays in rent) and private leases (which routinely prohibit subletting of apartments), as well as raising complicated tax, liability, and land use issues.
In high-cost cities like San Francisco that have complex landlord-tenant dynamics, Airbnb can be a way to skirt local protections. New York City essentially banned Airbnb rentals in 2010 and last year went after a landlord for using the service, threatening fines of up to $30,000, according to The Economist.
"The shareable economy has raised many new and complicated public policy issues," Chiu told us. "Crafting legislation on shareable housing spaces has taken longer than expected because of these complications, but we hope to have something in the coming months."
Chiu has staked out a middle ground on the shared housing issue, in the past authoring legislation that challenged the "hotelization" of San Francisco apartments by corporations seeking to get around local tenant protections, expressing hope that his legislation will legalize Airbnb's activities in ways that both its supporters and critics can live with.
Notably, Chiu also differed from Lee on the tax issue when it arose last year. As Chiu told us, "It has always been my perspective that we need to treat Airbnb and similarly situated companies the same as we treat our hotels."