Into thin air - Page 4

"Shareable housing" is causing apartments to vanish from SF's rental market — yet popular, profitable sites like Airbnb violate local laws

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And she confirmed that her association has worked with landlords to search Airbnb and other sites to identify tenants who are illegally renting out their apartments and to serve them with three-day "notice to quit" warnings, otherwise they would be evicted.

"Under rent control, some tenants are making more money than they pay in rent," New said, noting that landlords are essentially underwriting the rentals. "It's stealing."

Gullicksen expressed concerns that landlords are doing that kind of research to try to evict tenants, but he said the Tenants Union is doing similar research to ferret out landlords who are using these services to illegally turn apartments where evictions have taken place into vacation rentals and de facto hotels, focused mostly on VRBO because "they have a greater landlord emphasis."

"The homes that we're talking about are owned by the person that's renting them out. It's not people that are basically subletting their homes," VRBO spokesperson Victor Wang told us, refusing to comment on local apartment conversion laws or other issues specific to San Francisco.

Chiu told us he takes the rent control issues seriously: "Our rent control laws are in place for very important reasons and we need to make sure it stays affordable."

 

DISAPPEARING APARTMENTS

In a city experiencing what politicians and activists of all stripes have called a "housing crisis," it might come as a surprise that US Census numbers indicate 8.3 percent of San Francisco's rental stock was vacant in 2010 — about 31,000 units — up from 4.9 percent a decade earlier.

Scott James, homeowner and small-time landlord advocate, would have us believe that rent control is to blame, arguing in a recent New York Times op-ed ("King of My Castle? Yeah, Right," 6/11/13) that "San Francisco's anti-landlord housing laws and political climate make [renting] untenable."

Faced with a bad tenant at his home in the Castro, James said he "joined the ranks of thousands of other small-time landlords here who will never rent again, adding to the city's housing shortage."

Yet the San Francisco Rent Ordinance confers broad authority to evict tenants for a plethora of "just causes," including late payments, breach of lease (such as, ahem, illegal subletting), nuisance or damage to property, and owner move-in. Since the law dates back to 1979, it probably doesn't explain the steep rise in vacancies. And with evictions now hitting an 11-year high, it's hard to paint landlords as helpless victims.

San Francisco Rent Board Executive Director Delene Wolf told us the eviction rate has actually mimicked bullishness in the real estate market rather than beefier tenant regulations. She said it "really spiked around the dot-com years, for obvious reasons went way down during the recession, and it's back up now because the market heated up."

Some embittered landlords may indeed live atop empty units for decades but, given a median rental price of $2,764 per month for a one-bedroom unit, there's an enormous opportunity cost to being disgruntled.

But perhaps that's what "shareable housing" is really about: getting around the rules to make some money. Short-term rentals have become so lucrative that it's financially possible, and easier than ever, for a homeowner to exit the long-term rental market for good.

Airbnb is so unregulated that even a homeowner who has used the Ellis Act to supposedly get out of the rental business could easily and anonymously monetize an officially vacant space for higher profit margins and with less oversight as a "vacation" rental.