Chiu may have met his match with Airbnb. He has forged compromises on some of the toughest legislative challenges that City Hall has wrestled with this year — including condo conversions, CEQA reform, and the CPMC hospital deal — each time finding the acceptable middle ground between the progressive and moderate supervisors and constituencies.
His approach to this one sounds similarly centrist, with Chiu supporting the concept of shareable housing but understanding the myriad problems that Airbnb is presenting in complex cities. He neither sounds Lee's unqualified boosterism of Airbnb nor does he fret about its impact on the housing market as much as its critics.
"I do not think shareable housing is either the cause or the solution to the housing crisis," Chiu told us.
He's striving for something between New York City's total ban on tenants renting out their apartments while they're away and the laissez faire approach of other big tourist cities. He sees some merit in Chicago's requirement that Airbnb hosts register with the city to regulate it, but that's not quite what he wants to do either.
"It's a much less materialistic way to live and that's a good thing," Chiu said of the basic shareable economy concept of making more efficient use of existing resources, whether it be housing, cars, or consumer goods.
But he's equally clear in identifying the problems and overhyped claims, acknowledging that "it takes away housing from permanent residents, driving up the cost of housing."
While he says it's good to spread visiting tourists and their money around the city — a regular claim of Airbnb and its advocates — that also creates problems when apartments become virtual hotel rooms, disturbing neighbors and upsetting the dynamics of landlord-tenant relations.
"Shareable housing is used and abused in ways that displace permanent San Francisco residents," Chiu said. "Those are the excesses that need to be reined in, in a serious way."
So he's trying to create legislation that will set fair and clear standards, ensure compliance with city laws, improve the city's enforcement of those laws, and generate "tax revenues to cover the city's expenses in hosting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of visitors every year."
But Airbnb has only complicated Chiu's goals and his reputation as the legislator who solves tough problems, largely because knowledgeable sources tell us the company has been unwilling to really compromise — perhaps emboldened by support from the Mayor's Office and the city's apparent impotence to enforce its own rulings — and is dragging out the negotiations.
Chiu wouldn't comment on that, but he did acknowledge that these negotiations have been difficult. How can you allow renters to make a little extra money while recognizing the rights and concerns of their landlords and neighbors? How can you protect rent control and still allow tenants to profit from their units? Can you prevent landlords from using Airbnb or VRBO to bypass rent control? If you create a registry to ensure only permanent residents are playing host, what's to stop landlords from using that list to evict those on it?
"We want to carve out a reasonable opportunity for people to do this," Chiu said. "This is tough partly because of these complexities, and the laws are on the books for a reason....The more we pull these strings, the more this unravels."
LANDLORDS AND TENANTS TOGETHER
San Francisco Tenants Union Executive Director Ted Gullicksen has been involved with the Chiu-Airbnb negotiations — from which he hopes to strengthen enforcement of rent control and apartment conversion laws while still allowing limited use of shareable housing sites by tenants — and he told us, "It turned out to be a very slow process."