Editorials

Yes, there is a right way to regulate Airbnb

Opponents of Airbnb hold signs that read “My Home Is Not A Hotel,” during a January hearing at City Hall in New York City.
Opponents of Airbnb hold signs that read “My Home Is Not A Hotel,” during a January hearing at City Hall in New York City. Associated Press file

No matter how you look at it, the stakes were high for Airbnb last week. The hotel industry and affordable housing advocates had set their sights on evicting the tech company from the streets of San Francisco, upending its business model in the process.

Airbnb couldn’t afford to lose, not on its home turf. And it didn’t. The company spent $8.5 million on lobbying and voters rejected Proposition F, 55 percent to 45 percent.

But this is just the beginning. The company, which lets people list and rent spare bedrooms or their entire houses to strangers for short stays, is gearing up to beat back similar – if often less restrictive – measures that are cropping up in cities across the country.

The way it looks now, one of the company’s next stops will be Sacramento. A proposal to regulate Airbnb and similar services, such as VRBO, will go before the Planning and Design Commission on Dec. 10. If it passes there, it will head to the City Council.

The proposal bears little resemblance to the one that failed so spectacularly in San Francisco. Gone is a controversial provision that would have limited the number of nights that Airbnb hosts can rent rooms per year. (San Francisco, in a huge overreach, would have capped it at 75 days.) But still included is another controversial requirement that hosts register with the city and remit hotel taxes.

There’s still time to take a few lessons about what went wrong in San Francisco. Most important is what not to fear.

How all of this would be enforced is still fuzzy, though. (San Francisco would’ve allowed neighbors and landlords to sue Airbnb and its competitors if they violated any city rules.)

In short, Sacramento’s proposal is still very much in flux. That means there’s still time to take a few lessons about what went wrong in San Francisco. Most important is what not to fear.

San Francisco’s fight was, at its core, about the lack of affordable housing. About sky-high rents and a tremendous demand for housing that wasn’t being met by the supply even before landlords and tenants alike started Airbnb-ing every vacant house and apartment.

There will never be the demand for housing here that there is there. That’s because new arena or no new arena, Sacramento’s geography will never be as constricted as San Francisco’s. Nor are the attractions of state government buildings, however nice, ever likely to garner Golden Gate Bridge levels of tourism. Last year, for example, San Francisco had 18 million visitors who spent $13.8 billion. In Sacramento, that number was closer to $3.4 billion.

The chances of someone buying an apartment building and profitably turning half of the units into short-term rentals here is slim to none. The same is true of slimeball landlords snapping up old properties and successfully turning them into Airbnb hubs.

But downtown and midtown, and even West Sacramento, are likely to become even more busy and the housing market even tighter after Golden 1 Center opens, and more development pops up on nearby blocks. Increasingly, those who live in these neighborhoods and choose to rent their rooms will have to find a way to coexist with other residents.

Where San Francisco failed – and continues to fail – most is with enforcement. Sacramento would be wise to figure out this part now. Requiring residents to register with the city from the very beginning is a good first step. So is limiting the number of guests in a home as well as the number of nights that hosts can rent rooms without being on the premises.

San Francisco learned again last week that no one can truly stop the new sharing economy. But if cities are smart and start early, they can regulate it.

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