In a dramatic about-face, Airbnb says it is ready to police its San Francisco hosts, taking actions it has long resisted as invasive, unrealistic or unwieldy.
The vacation-rental giant told The Chronicle it is willing to provide all local hosts’ names, addresses and guest stays as part of a mandatory registration system it would craft with the city. Once such a system exists, Airbnb could cut off listings when they hit the city’s annual cap on number of nights rented and ensure that apartments where tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act are not rented to travelers, the company said.
The move comes as Airbnb faces two major threats to its business in its hometown.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors is expected to weigh stringent new limits curtailing short-term rentals in a private home to no more than 60 days a year. Currently people renting rooms to travelers can do so 365 days a year, while whole-home rentals are capped at 90 days. And last week, a federal judge indicated that he’s likely to rule against Airbnb in its lawsuit over a San Francisco law that would hold the lodging marketplace and similar companies liable for steep fines and criminal penalties if they book guests into unregistered listings.
“This is a serious proposal to once and for all address the core issues that exist in San Francisco,” said Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s global policy chief. “We can sit across the table from the city and address the issues in a win-win scenario.”
Will lawmakers want to play ball with a company that many vilify for a housing shortage, albeit one that long predates Airbnb’s existence?
“We certainly hope there is reciprocal interest,” Lehane said.
City officials sounded cautiously optimistic. “We’re encouraged that Airbnb appears to be taking steps to meet their requirements under the law, and we look forward to them coming into full compliance,” said John Coté, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
Host registration is a flash point in San Francisco. Only about 1,700 out of an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 hosts have registered, undermining the city’s ability to enforce its 21-month-old law. That led supervisors to amend the law, holding Airbnb and others accountable when they book unregistered listings — an amendment that spurred Airbnb to sue the city. That’s the lawsuit it appears poised to lose.
Airbnb said it wants to help build a registration system similar to one it will soon implement in Chicago, where it gives the city information on every host on its site with the understanding that the information will be shielded to protect hosts’ privacy. It’s open to discussing features such as requiring hosts to upload documents proving that they live in their units, another tenet of city law governing short-term rentals.
San Francisco is now working on its own online registration system, but the advantage of Airbnb’s involvement would be ensuring that every host is automatically registered. For Airbnb, the big plus is that universal registration would allow it to keep operating here without fear of penalties for booking unregistered properties.
“At the core of (our proposal) is let’s make this registration system work,” Lehane said. “Once it works, it will have a cascade effect, helping to solve a bunch of other issues.”
The company admits that it’s made some missteps during its eight-year evolution from bootstrapped startup offering crash space in a South of Market bachelor pad to an international juggernaut that eclipses every hotel chain in the world with almost 3 million listings and a private-market valuation of $30 billion.
Airbnb helped craft San Francisco’s vacation-rental law, but then soon decried the registration process as broken. Hosts stayed away in droves from the complex system that required in-person visits and lots of paperwork.
Now Airbnb concedes that it played a role in that morass. “A big part of why the host requirements for registration are so complicated is that we were unwilling to help the city … with enforcement,” David Owen, Airbnb head of policy strategy, said at a Chronicle editorial board meeting this month.
Airbnb may hope that its newfound compliance will help dissolve some of the red tape San Francisco has built around vacation rentals. It cites policies such as requiring hosts to inventory their cutlery and sheets for tax purposes as “ridiculous” measures.
“If we’re willing to put more skin in the game to help the city solve the rest of the short-term rental issues, the city should be ready to get rid of some of that stuff,” Owen said two weeks ago.
But Lehane said there’s no quid pro quo. “We’re saying what we can affirmatively do without seeking A, B or C in exchange,” he said.
Airbnb has also taken other steps, such as building in tools to reject San Francisco hosts with multiple listings, a telltale sign that they are not renting only their own home in violation of city rules.
San Francisco is far from alone in its concerns about Airbnb. Cities worldwide are wrestling with whether lucrative vacation rentals siphon off permanent housing and change neighborhoods’ character. Paris, Berlin and Barcelona are cracking down on them. New York State voted last month to impose $7,500 fines on hosts who post rentals that defy local housing laws. Airbnb promptly filed suit in New York, and the law is on hold pending a resolution.
In San Francisco, Airbnb is hopeful that the political tides are turning. It invested heavily in backing more-moderate supervisor candidates in the most recent election.
Lehane said Airbnb is ready to step up and make changes elsewhere too. The company said it’s made about 200 deals for hotel taxes, data sharing and new laws worldwide in the past year.
“We’re working with cities throughout the world on smart, creative solutions to address their specific issues,” he said.