Is Airbnb's day of reckoning in SF on its way?

Airbnb facilitates short-term stays all over San Francisco, most of which violate local laws.

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office is finally preparing to take action against the illegal short-term housing rentals facilitated by Airbnb, something we’ve been hearing that the Examiner also reports in today’s issue, an action that would address the company’s apparent stall tactics.

Despite a business model that violates a variety of San Francisco laws — most notably zoning, planning, and tenant regulations — and Airbnb’s flagrant flouting of a two-year-old city ruling that it should be collecting and paying the city’s transient occupancy tax, the city has appeared unwilling or unable to enforce its laws or address these issues.

“We’re aware of multiple housing allegations, including some that community leaders have brought to us,” City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey told the Guardian today, confirming that the office is considering taking legal action to enforce local laws governing short-term housing rentals but refusing to provide details.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu took on the problem over a year ago, working with the company and its critics to develop compromise legislation that would legalize and tax the activities of Airbnb and its hosts, but the multi-layered legal and logistical challenges in doing so have so far proven too much for the otherwise effective legislator.

"My staff has held meetings with Planning staff and its enforcement team to discuss enforcement and related challenges. We've also been in touch with the City Attorney's Office on these issues," Chiu told the Guardian, saying he and his staff have recently been focused on other tenants and secondary unit legislation, but they "plan to refocus on our shareable housing efforts soon." 

Sources also say there has recently been some behind-the-scenes progress made in getting the company and/or its hosts to pay their taxes, which the Guardian found amounts to almost $2 million annually, although details aren’t clear because of pending negotiations and taxpayer privacy laws.

Airbnb has been shielded by unqualified support from Mayor Ed Lee, who shares a financial benefactor with the company: venture capitalist Ron Conway. But complaints about Airbnb being used to remove apartments from the market and to violate rent control laws have prompted increasingly frustrated complaints from groups representing tenants, landlords, neighborhoods, and hotel workers and operators.

The Guardian has been covering issues arising from Airbnb’s business model for years, often the only journalists highlighting this illegal behavior, and neither the company nor Mayor Lee has been willing to offer substantial responses to us for a long time. But if you want to read their hollow replies to this latest development, you can find them in the Examiner’s story.

Dorsey told us that City Attorney Dennis Herrera has a proven history of taking on powerful corporations, from Pacific Gas & Electric to CitiApartments (which once controled more apartments in San Francisco that any other landlord), but that the office has just been trying to be deliberate in how it approaches the complicated issues arising from Airbnb’s business model.