So Are Vacation Rentals Illegal in SF?

Aug 04 at 2pm

Last week, the SF Tenant’s Union created bright green stickers that it posted on illegally converted tourist rentals, to deter tourists from staying in them. Along with this effort, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Unit released a report analyzing vacation rentals in San Francisco. Created in collaboration with the SF Tenants Union, the report claims that most rentals on Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, and Flipkey "violate the San Francisco Administrative code41A against rentals less than 30 days, and may violate zoning laws." 

A sticker created by the SF Tenants Union to mark illegal vacation rentals

The report culled data from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Unit's two year study of 311 of the almost 1,400 San Francisco VRBO offerings (as well as Airbnb's own commissioned reports). It argues that San Franciscans are losing their homes because there’s been an impressive growth in wealthy property owners illegally renting their properties short term, instead of opening them up for permanent residents to rent. According to the report, since August of 2012, the number of vacation rental listings in the city of San Francisco has nearly doubled (from 795 to 1,278 and Airbnb adding another 1,278) and all of them are illegal. The city’s Administrative Code 41A states, with overwhelming clarity, that it is against the law to rent your home for 30 days or less. Thus, sites like Airbnb and VRBO are, well, breaking the law (the report also claims that on VRBO forums, short-term renters discuss how to avoid the legal implications). On top of all this, VRBO rentals are, as defined by the company’s website, second homes (with 31 percent of these renters having more than one property up for rent). Seemingly, a crowded city is losing valuable living space (the report also cites that 783 of these VRBOs would be eligible for rent-control of placed back on the market) so a bunch of wealthy people can put another Bentley in their gold garages. 

Services like Airbnb and VRBO aren’t inherently bad services, though. They provide travellers with the ability to circumvent wallet-gouging hotels (in potentially unique and interesting parts of the city) and more so, they provide a secondary source of income for the Average Joe just trying to survive in San Francisco, where it's becoming steadily more expensive to live. According to Airbnb, 75% of users who share their homes spend the average extra $4,000/year made to pay their rent, while 82% of those whose already own their homes, use it pay property taxes or mortgages. Of the short-term renters in San Francisco who list their homes through Airbnb, “the overwhelming majority only share the home in which they live.” 

Last year Airbnb home sharers welcomed an estimated 180,000 people into their homes, and the company claims that these people stayed longer and spent their money at more local businesses than the average hotel guest, thus adding to the incomes of those who live and breathe here on a daily basis. The company also has been working to keep itself as legal as possible. In April the company announced it would start collecting the 14% city-mandated hotel tax and those who wish to list their properties are made well-aware of the existing laws and the penalties for breaking them.

Whether you like them or not, shared economy business like VRBO, Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber are the new norm in San Francisco. Vacation rentals are technically illegal, but there are enough supporters of the services and beneficial reasons that just putting an end to them doesn't seem likely, and while they exist, they will continue to change our city for better and worse. One thing is clear, though: we can, and should, expect steps to reform and regulate them. City Supervisor David Chiu, for example, is already working with companies like Airbnb and the SFTU to amend existing laws prohibiting short-term rentals, by setting conditions and limits for these rentals. And hopefully, there will continue to be more ways for these sharing-economy companies to actually live up to their collaborative, reciprocal intentions and allow more people in the city to share this city together. 

Top image via Thinkstock 

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