The Airbnb Solution

By Joel P. Engardio

When it comes to things that evoke absolute feelings of love or hate, Airbnb is in the same league as Donald Trump, LeBron James and cilantro.

Just when anti-Airbnb sentiment seemed to peak in San Francisco last fall with a voter initiative to restrict the home sharing platform, pro-Airbnb voters prevailed with 55 percent. But it wasn’t a very big majority, considering Airbnb spent more than $8 million to defeat the initiative.

The forces against Airbnb will certainly clash again with those who swear by the polarizing innovation. There is a solution, but not everyone will like it.

To understand the strong feelings for and against Airbnb, you need to look at San Francisco as two very different cities divided by Twin Peaks where more renters live on the Eastside and homeowners dominate the Westside.

Eastside renters blame Airbnb for taking rent-controlled units off the market -- tourists stay in the units instead of long-term tenants. Westside homeowners don’t want single-family homes on their block to become hotels for loud bachelorette parties. And they don’t like the prospect of strangers for neighbors.

San Franciscans who love Airbnb share the same reason regardless of geography: the income from home sharing helps them afford to stay in an increasingly expensive city.

I was against last fall’s anti-Airbnb measure because new legislation (albeit imperfect) was starting to address concerns around short-term rentals. I also believe voter initiatives are the worst way to deal with complicated and evolving issues – they can’t be amended without another initiative. Airbnb didn’t exist a few years ago, which is why the fluid legislative process works best when needs are constantly changing. 

Airbnb could try to game the system by bankrolling the campaign of every legislator. But voters are free to ignore the glossy political mailers and support independent candidates. A majority of the supervisor seats are up for election this year.

So what is the legislative solution? First, we need to dispel the boogeymen both sides use to justify their positions.

One boogeyman is that Airbnb causes landlords to stop renting to tenants. The real reason is housing policy that has punished property owners relentlessly for 40 years. The latest law forces landlords to let tenants add more roommates regardless what the lease says. No wonder Airbnb is such a popular alternative.

A boogeyman Airbnb likes to use is that they won’t be able to compete fairly if they’re forced to only list hosts who are legally registered at City Hall. Airbnb claims websites like Craigslist will get more business from hosts who don’t register.

I recently tried to sell a sofa on Craigslist and it was a nightmare. If you aren’t an undergrad, you don’t have the patience for the flaky and dubious interactions. Rational people will always pick a registered and vetted Airbnb host over taking their chances on the Wild West Internet.

For vehement Airbnb haters, the bad news is that there is no going back to a city without it. Airbnb is headquartered in San Francisco with 1,000 employees. It’s part of the economy and lots of people are using it.

But that doesn’t mean Airbnb gets a blank check. Supervisors should pass legislation that requires Airbnb to only list legally registered hosts. This will keep users accountable and help weed out bad actors. Proof that your homeowner's association allows short-term rentals could be a condition of registering. 

Many Airbnb hosts want to be good citizens and support the registration process. Even their Facebook groups require members to submit a registration number. Airbnb as a company should follow the example of its hosts.

Last year, the professional and apolitical planning staff at City Hall recommended that Airbnb only be allowed to list legally registered hosts. Yet our politically appointed planning commissioners and elected supervisors voted against it. If supervisors don’t embrace this common sense solution now, voters should elect new ones in November.

Solving the tensions around Airbnb is a bit like the story of King Solomon ordering a contested baby cut in half. Let’s hope someone is willing to put the best interests of San Francisco first.

Also published in San Francisco Examiner January 10, 2016