Airbnb makes small admission on tax issue, saying its hosts should pay

Airbnb creates pages for each major San Francisco neighborhood, but it won't charge guests the taxes they owe.

Under pressure in San Francisco and New York City for violating local tenant and land use laws and refusing to pay local taxes, Airbnb has finally acknowledged that transient occupany taxes apply to the room rentals it facilitates. But the company still hasn’t taken any public steps to collect the tax, nor has it admitted that it shares this tax debt with its hosts.

“Our hosts are not hotels, but we believe that it makes sense for our community to pay occupancy tax, with limited exemptions for those who earn under certain thresholds,” CEO Brian Chesky wrote on the Airbnb blog yesterday, addressing the post to New York City and not San Francisco, where it is headquartered and where we have shown the company is shirking an annual tax debt of nearly $2 million.

Contacted by the Guardian, a company spokesperson extended the pledge to San Francisco, writing, "Yesterday, our CEO Brian Chesky announced that we believe it makes sense for our community of hosts to pay occupancy tax to the cities in which they live, with exceptions under certain thresholds, and we are eager to discuss how this might be made possible. We have been in substantive discussions with Board President David Chiu on these issues for some time, and we’d like to thank him for the open dialogue that helped lead to today’s announcement. We look forward to continuing our work with him and others in San Francisco to set forth clear, fair laws that allow regular people to rent out their own homes, while giving back to the city that makes it possible."

As the Guardian has repeatedly reported, most recently in our Aug. 6 cover story “Into Thin Air,” the San Francisco Treasurer/Tax Collectors Office has ruled that the city’s TOT of about 15 percent applies to Airbnb guests, and that Airbnb shares that joint tax liability with its hosts.

The ability of individual hosts to receive business licenses for renting out rooms and to collect and remit the TOT is complicated by the fact that such rentals violate land use, tenant, and other city laws -- and Chiu has been developing legislation that would legalize and regulate the stays.

Airbnb could easily collect the TOT on each San Francisco transaction, as some of its online competitors have already been doing, but it has so far refused to do so. And when the Guardian asked Airbnb whether it now plans to do so, the company ignored the question.

In fact, Airbnb’s public statements and private communications indicate its intention to pass the buck to its hosts rather than collect and pay the taxes itself, and several hosts who commented on Chesky’s blog post expressed hopes they would get more support from the company on the myriad issues that complicate its simplistic business model.

Nonetheless, Chiu took the Airbnb’s statement yesterday as a positive sign, telling us, “I am pleased to hear that Airbnb has acknowledged the need for their users to pay the occupancy tax. This policy was developed as a result of discussions that I’ve led in the past year to regulate and tax shareable housing activity in San Francisco. While we continue to negotiate with shareable housing companies, housing advocates, and the Mayor’s Office to find sensible solutions, I am confident that we will be able to move forward on a regulatory framework that provides flexibility to residents, protects our affordable housing stock and collects the fair share of taxes for the City. I look forward to introducing legislation in the coming months.”



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It's great that people have a new way to make some cash on their too-expensive dwelling. It would also be great if these people would pay any applicable taxes on their new cash. They still come out ahead. And it would be great if Airbnb stepped up and created whatever user interface/backend is needed to make it easy for hosts to pay their taxes. Everybody wins.

Posted by Rocket on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

If hosts owe tax to their locality, then they can pay it or take a risk that they won;t get caught.

But AirBnB operates in hundreds of cities. They cannot reasonably be expected to deal with all that complexity any more than tenants have to deduct income tax from their rent and pay it to. the government

Posted by Guest on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

Read the Treasurer's memo - both the renter AND Airbnb (Orbitz, Priceline, etc.) are liable for the tax. There are many software programs that track sales and the related tax. Presumably not everyone working at Airbnb is stupid and can learn to operate some simple software program in order to remit the correct amount of tax.

But before the city allows SF's valuable rental stock from being exploited by savvy landlords and speculators, let's hope the city requires a registration system, inspections for health and safety requirements before the short-term rentals commence, imposes some restrictions on street parking for the short-term renters, and requires adequate registration fees to cover the city's costs for ensuring compliance with the regulations and tax responsibilities. Failure to comply with these minimum requirements should be a misdemeanor, subject to increasing fines and jail sentences for willful non-compliance of the city's regulations.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

Rather than chase down hundreds of tenants for taxes, they'd rather get it all from one place with deep pockets. Of course they would. But that doesn't eman their "opinion" (and that is all it is) would stand up in court.

If the opinion was valid, AirBnB would be sued by the city for being in default, and it is significant that the city feels it has no real power or right to do that.

No, SF will just have to do it the hard way - one host at a time.

The rest of your rant is just an appeal for mass over-regulation - the Achilles Heel of the left.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 6:41 am

I'm not sure whether you're connected to Airbnb or just a little dense, but the issue here is very simple. Airbnb collects the money from guests. Only Airbnb does so, not the hosts, who are paid by Airbnb. Guests are the ones who generally pay the TOT, not the hosts. Ergo, only Airbnb can collect and remit this tax in an efficient manner. And since the company is legally responsible for the tax, it should just collect and pay it rather than being a petulant tax scofflaw and have its minions made dumb comments on blog posts rather than just being an honest and accessible member of this community. 

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AirBnB has lots of people wondering whether they're a good neighbor right now, during an important phase in their growth as a company. That's a major branding problem. There must be some potential hosts out there who might have considered renting out to guests on AirBnB, but now they're worried about the fallout, tax-wise, regulation-wise, landlord-wise, neighbor-wise. Bye-bye to those hosts and that revenue and that market share.

And AirBnB has the government breathing down their neck. That's also a branding problem, and it's got to be a major distraction from their business operations at times. I would not like to spend part of my day contemplating the possibility of a civil or criminal penalty, brought against me by a city where I am trying to do business.

But to think of every problem as an opportunity: I would like to see AirBnB take the criticism with a smile, even though they don't have to, and show us all what a truly-innovative top-growth company can come up with. Write a user interface/backend that takes care of this tax issue in a way that turns your critics into cheerleaders. That's good branding, and worth every penny of developer time. You can even take a slug at the government, with slogan that says something about teaching the IRS how to calculate taxes in the 21st century.

Posted by Rocket on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

AirBnB than they are to tax collectors who are too lazy to go after the hosts and instead want someone else to do the work for them for free.

The city can pressure AirBnB, maybe, because AirBnB happen to be in SF. So if there is any impact from hassling them it will simply be to drive hosts to use other online services that are not based in SF. Maybe not even based in the US.

If I rent out my home to Europeans using a European version of AirBnB, good luck chasing them down for taxes or even knowing that I am doing this.

The one good thing I can see coming out of this is what landlords will now have a register of tenants who are using AirBnB to sublet illegally, and can then evict them with just cause for breaching their lease.

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There's only one "transient occupancy" tax rate and it's based on property addresses known to Airbnb and other short-term rental companies since the address is the first piece of information received from the customer renting out their house/unit. Although "anon" and numerous "Guests" continue to tell us that the people who work at Airbnb are stupid who can't read or figure out simple tax rules, even Airbnb will be able to find a bookkeeper who can aggregate the rents and fees received for addresses located in the city, apply the tax rate, and send a check to the government each month. This is a job for a clerk, not a college grad. If Airbnb wants to eliminate a clerk's job, software programs either currently exist on the market or the task can be done with a simple extract of the billing system onto an excel worksheet with a sort by zip code and address.

Consider the tens of thousands of businesses that sell into Texas. Since Texas doesn't have an income tax it relies on layers upon layers of regressive sales taxes. The tax rate for each customer address is completely different since city, county, school, transit, and special-use tax districts are a hodgepodge of overlapping lines. Next door neighbors can have different tax rates depending on where these random tax lines are drawn. Yet these tens of thousands of companies are able to easily comply with the thousands of Texas tax rates because it's simple enough to sort billing information by address, or license software from numerous vendors such as Vertex or CCH and feed the billing system info into the tax software. It's a trivial process performed by thousands of tax clerks across the country. If thousands of companies can figure out their tax liability in Texas based on customer address, I think a clerk can figure it out when one tax rate applies in SF.

Rather than focus on the trivial tax compliance issue, the much bigger concerns should be about opening up the city's precious, limited housing stock to short-term rentals. When I pay $1.3 million for a 2-bedroom hovel in West Portal, or Bernal, or the Sunset districts, I didn't expect to be living near short-term rentals, with vacationing yahoos partying all night, disobeying parking rules, and introducing a transient element that makes the families who live there potentially less safe from the transients. My insurance premiums may now increase since I now live in a rental area rather than a single-family housing neighborhood. And if I don't tell my insurance company that my neighborhood now includes short-term rentals, they may deny any insurance claims based on my failure to notify them of the changed circumstances in the neighborhood.

When I travel to Singapore, Shanghai and Columbia I'm required to notify the local police of my presence and they copy my passport and travel documents. If every house in the city is potentially a short-term rental with the potential for unsavory characters roaming the safe neighborhood I had thought I lived in, at a minimum these transients should also be required to check in with the local police authorities where dissemination of the quiet hours, local parking rules, and the transients' identification documents can be exchanged. And every owner who rents out their house via a short-term rental company like Airbnb should be bonded with a $5 million insurance policy and an attorney/agent identified where they can be served with a lawsuit when one of their transients causes my house to burn down or my "quiet enjoyment" to be violated.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 7:03 am

1) It's not true that you can tax regardless of jurisdiction. Suppose AirBnB moves to Dubai, and clearly they can exist anyway since their business model requires no physical location. There is no way you can enforce any tax collection unless Dubai agrees to co-operate with SF, which it wouldn't.

Companies like AirBnB can simply move offshore and give SF the finger, And of course SF will have no other way of knowing who is renting out their homes anyway.

Archaic taxes like the hotel tax, even if you accept that it applies to non-hotels (and I do not) will still find it very hard to enforce the collection of any taxes they make up, because of the very nature of a shared economy.

2) The rest of your views are little more than a xenophobic rant against foreigners. The fact that you want a secret police force that visitors have to register with just shows how pernicious is your desire for an anal retentive level of control over everyone and everything.

I have sublet thru AirBnB a number of time and have encountered only police, civil, respectful foreigners. Frankly I would take them over someone like you any day of the week. They pay more, they whine less, and they are a joy to interact with. If you're finding it hard to find a home, it's because you're an ass.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 7:23 am

Of course AirBNB is not responsible for the taxes.It just wouldn't work.

Imagine that you are the tax collector in Key West, Florida. You notice that a local homeowner has been renting out her guest house. So you go to her for the TOT and she gives you a check for half of it.

So you ask about the other half and she tells you that one half of her business is from AirBNB, and she tells you to go track them down in San Francisco. The half that she just gave you if from craigslist or other sources. So now it is up to you, the tax collector, to manage the multiple sources that she uses within her business. Silly. No tax collector in the world allow that.

Of course the person who owns or leases and manages the property is responsible for the tax, just like with hotels. AirBNB probably should do a better job of building it in to their web site, and they probably will.

But the whole Steven Jones thing about AirBNB "owing" taxes and breaking laws is just because Ron Conway is an investor, and because Steven gets confused easily.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 7:59 am

Steven hates that a successful business in Sf has some link with people more powerful and wealthy than he is, and so he misuses his role here to conduct a smear campaign, supported by his resident but clueless lapdog.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 9:11 am

The moment a company takes ANY effort to exploit a market for profit, then local, state and federal tax authority is allowed under the Due Process clause of the 14th amendment. So let Airbnb go to Dubai. Once they advertise a SF rental on their website, then SF - and CA and the feds - are allowed under the 14th amendment to regulate and tax the activity. Even if the owners and managers of Airbnb remain in Dubai forever, the tax and regulatory liabilities arising from their profit-making activities in the SF and US remain. Forever. If the IRS or local tax authorities can't reach them, then Interpol can take over to drag these tax evaders back to the US for justice, with heavy fines and long jail terms.

You've misstated the tax jurisdiction rules for months now, which makes me think either you don't even live in the US or you believe that tax evasion is admirable. We know you're a big supporter of Mayor Lee, who has governed at a time when the city has become a haven only for the very wealthy who can afford high rents and high housing prices, and whose favored policies are to build housing only for rich people (and a few token units for very poor people) and who supports companies like Airbnb that willfully ignore the local tax laws. What a nice city you, the mayor and BOS are creating. The sooner you and the mayor are gone from the city, the sooner the city can try to repair the incredible social and economic damage your favored policies are causing the city.

And transient occupancy taxes are hardly archaic. The city has invested billions for tourist related expenditures, including tens of millions for annual subsidies to the "arts" favored by the wealthy travelers (the opera and symphony for starters), transit investment, landmark preservation, and marketing the city to foreign travelers. Imposing a focused tax like a transient occupancy tax to recapture a small portion of these billion dollar tourist-related expenditures is both smart and equitable.

If you hate the US and SF tax and regulation rules so much, the rational question is why do you even waste energy fighting equitable tax rules and reasonable regulations? You seem to be wealthy enough, so you could easily live in other countries that are far more to your liking, while profiting off the local tenants and supporting governments that are compliant to economic exploiters and tax evaders like yourself.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 8:32 am

Google "tax nexus". It is all about having a 'sufficient physical presence' in order to be subject to local taxes.

No tax jurisdiction outside of San Francisco would accept being told by a local business that they had to track down AirBNB in San Francisco to collect the tax on money generated by the local business.

Unless maybe you think that San Francisco should be the only jurisdiction to place this burden on AirBNB. Because, after all, they did locate and create jobs here. For that, we should do all we can to make their life miserable. And let it be a lesson to other businesses that might want to locate here.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 8:46 am

He presumably thinks that a Bulgarian website can be charged a SF tax.

I have news for him. I represent the North Korea government and we have decided to collect a $1,000 tax on all SF liberals who post here.

That makes no less sense than trying to tax a website that can locate anywhere it wants.

Clearly the host has the primary responsibility to pay the tax as it is the host who us making almost all the money.

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The test for tax nexus isn't "physical presence." The test under the due process clause is "purposeful economic activity" within a taxing jurisdiction. If a business involves renting property or earning fees in a jurisdiction, which Airbnb's business does, then the business is subject to tax even if the business or its managers/workers never set foot in the jurisdiction.

But it appears Airbnb is owned and operated by morons who can't read or follow basic tax rules. I'm sorry, but being a moron is no excuse for willfully evading the laws. Let's hope the city enacts substantial fines and eventual jail time for multiple violations of its tax rules since obviously there are lots of businesses out there who like to ignore reasonable regulations and tax rules. Maybe some 6-figue fines and a few months in jail will help them learn that complying with laws helps create a more perfect and just society.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 9:20 am

OK, OK, calm down! It's just that every source out there says that there must be a significant physical presence. Here is an example from the Journal of Accountancy:

So you see, I'm not really a moron, I just have trouble understanding why every source out there is wrong when they say that a significant physical presence.

Also, I buy stuff from eBay all the time and never pay a sales tax.

So again, they must all be wrong and you must be right.

Hey...maybe it's not me who is the moron!

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 9:39 am

Sales tax has to be charged only if the seller has a physical presence in the State of the purchaser. That's federal law - interstate commerce.

So all my Amazon purchases were always free of sales tax at the point of purchase, but as the buyer i am supposed to declare those purchases and pay the tax.

Amazon changed their policies recently because they want physical warehouses in each State for quicker delivery, but other online vendors still sell tax-free and I only used those, at least for big-ticket items.

Another good reason for this is simply a matter of collection and enforcement. If an entity is not in your jurisdiction then you can levy all the taxes you want. You just can never collect unless they volunteer.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 10:04 am

The US Congress passed a special law to exempt sellers of tangible PERSONAL property from collecting tax - IF AND ONLY IF - the sellers of tangible PERSONAL property are merely conducting SOLICITING activities within the state. The law was designed to protect companies when they send traveling salesmen (and women) into states looking to drum up business, but it is not a blanket of protection that will cover Airbnb's willful tax evasion violations.

The law does not protect companies that actually sell within a state; the law does not protect companies that sell, rent or earn fees from REAL PROPERTY located in a state; and the law does not protect companies that perform activities that go beyond the MERE SOLICITATION of sales (such as signing contracts, performing repair services, maintaining a distribution center in the state, etc.)

Airbnb and its ilk do not sell personal property. End of story. But Airbnb appears to hire only morons who either can't read and figure out simple tax rules or have so many political and powerful law firm connections behind them they can tell the rest of society to "F___ Off, we're too cool to pay your stupid taxes."

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 10:47 am

They are selling the use of the most personal of all properties - your home!

You'd have been on stronger ground arguing that the interstate commerce provisions apply at the State level rather than at the municipal level.

But the common sense argument prevails here. Taxes apply at and in the location where the economic activity takes place. If the let was in SF then it really doesn't matter where the broker is located EXCEPT that the taxing authority has no jurisdiction over entities in other locations.

The IRS could ask tenants to withhold federal income tax from the rent they pay. Wanna argue that should happen too?

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compute the hotel tax due then it would not be trying to shove the work off on an intermediary rather than do it themselves.

This is just SF being lazy and opportunistic. If AirBnB was based in Zurich, Dubai or Hong Kong, SF wouldn't even be trying this on. They'd be going after the hosts themselves.

To put this burden on AirBnB only because they are based in SF, but not on their competitiors, would be discriminatory and would no doubt cause AirBnB to relocate where they will be immune.

Oh, and there is no "law" about this yet. There is just an self-serving opinion by the SF tax collector. Hasn't been tested in the courts.

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who lives in the US than you are with a visitor from another western country. Not only are their crime rates lower than the US anyway, but the ones who can afford to visit here are less likely to be criminals than most of the Americans on your block.

You're really just looking for an excuse to bash AirBnB if you're trying to claim that AirBnB guests are all anti-social foreign criminals. The exact opposite is much closer to the truth.

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Not true. There are so many hosts on Airbnb, that in order to successfully rent your place you really can't charge more than what you're already paying to rent the place. You come out even, in my experience, and now with this tax I'll take a little hit.

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>"There are many software programs that track sales and the related tax."

Please name one.

Name one software program that calculates and files up to date hotel occupancy taxes across all of the cities in all of the countries in the world that companies like AirBNB have hosts. Something like 40,000 cities in well over a hundred countries.

You said that there are many, so it shouldn't be hard for you to provide us with one name.


Posted by Guest on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

supposed to compute the Moscow tax due on a Swiss tourist staying in a Moscow home he found through a Dubai-based online competitor to AirBnB.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 6:47 am

Any sizable business sells to customers all over the world, yet somehow they manage to comply with the local tax rules wherever the sale is transacted. It appears only Airbnb hires stupid people who can't figure it out. Got it.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 8:42 am

Any chance that you can name ONE software system that handles TOT occupancy taxes in 40,000 cities all over the world?


I know it's easy to just say that it exists. But if you knew what you are talking about you would be able to come up with one name.


Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 9:07 am

Suppose AirBnB's biggest rival in based in Bulgaria. How are you going to collect the TOT? The Bulgarians will just give you the finger.

And why wouldn't AirBnB relocate their business to Bulgaria if SF's policy unfairly discriminates against them?

Local taxation becomes meaningless unless the entity that owes the tax is here as well. The host is; the website, not.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 9:13 am

As I wrote about in my cover story and referenced in this post, Roomorama is a competitor of Airbnb with a very similar business model (charging guests, taking its cut, then paying the hosts) and it manages to collect and remit the TOT in San Francisco and other cities. The CEO of that company told us how easy it is to do and that he's surprised Airbnb doesn't do so. 

Posted by steven on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 11:23 am

than a rather self-serving allegation from someone as biased as you.

In any event, since you admit it is a joint responsibility between the intermediary and the host, then both systems seem viable. In some cases, the intermediary withholds and pays the tax. In other cases, as with sales tax, the tax authority goes after the individual.

Each intermediary should decide for itself.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 11:34 am

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