Airbnb host legislation advances to Board of Supervisors

Legislation requiring short-term rental companies to verify that hosts are registered with The City is set to go before the Board of Supervisors next week, even as Airbnb officials Thursday hinted at a possible legal challenge.

The legislation, introduced by Supervisors David Campos and Aaron Peskin in April, was approved unanimously Thursday by the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee, and is expected to go before the full board next week. It would fine companies $1,000 a day for each unverified listing.

In response, Airbnb officials Thursday released a blog post arguing that the proposal conflicts with federal laws protecting internet speech and commerce and could “further confuse the city’s complicated short term rental laws.”

In particular, federal law prevents online platform operators from being held liable for illegal behavior by their users.

The post said:

“This well-intentioned proposal is aimed at preventing bad actors converting housing intended for long-term residents into illegal hotels. … Unfortunately, many online privacy and technology law experts believe the new proposal conflicts with important federal laws intended to protect and encourage a free and open internet.”

Current city laws put the burden on hosts to register with the Office of Short-Term Rentals, and leave enforcement entirely to city officials. Enforcement efforts have been hampered by a lack of support from hosting platforms, however, and a city legislative analyst report released in April found that as of March, more than 75 percent of hosts had still failed to register.

Campos said:

“The weakness in the current law is that corporate accountability is nonexistent.”

Peskin and Campos have said they are confident the legislation is narrowly written enough to survive a legal challenge. Deputy City Attorney Jonathan Givner Thursday said the ordinance does not regulate the content of posts on the web site, but rather it regulates the business activities of the hosting platforms, extending the type of information they must collect to engage in booking services.

Airbnb previously fought off an attempt to impose restrictions on short-term rentals through the ballot box last November, spending around $8 million in its campaign to defeat Measure F.

Short-term rentals have been blamed for taking housing units off the market, as some property owners have turned entire apartments or homes, or even entire buildings, into full-time vacation rentals. Residents have also complained of problems caused by short-term guests, and landlords have sought to enforce rules against illegal sublets.

Peskin noted that the current legislation has support from a broad coalition that includes organizations often at odds with each other, such as the San Francisco Tenants Union and the San Francisco Apartment Association, the hotel and restaurant employees unions and the Hotel Council of San Francisco.

While most speakers at Thursday’s hearing supported the legislation, Jim Lazarus, senior vice president for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said companies should not be asked to enforce city laws:

“What you’ve heard today is a failure of enforcement by the city and that should not be put on the backs of independent companies that are located here and throughout the world.”