An Update for Our Community in San Francisco

From the moment our founders launched Airbnb in 2008 during the middle of the Great Recession to help pay their rent, Airbnb has helped San Franciscans afford to stay in the City they love. Since then, thousands of City residents have avoided eviction or foreclosure and been able to stay in San Francisco because they share their space. Thousands more use Airbnb a few times a year to make extra money while on vacation or when big events come to town.

While we are not always perfect, we have constantly sought to learn, get better, and work with the City. There is a need for policies that protect San Francisco’s housing stock and ensure the collection of hotel taxes but also enable residents who depend on Airbnb to make ends meet. For over five years, we have worked with City government to create fair rules for home sharing.

Unfortunately, the rules do not work. There is broad agreement that the current registration process in the City is broken.

Despite these challenges, we had ongoing conversations with policymakers in City Hall and sought to encourage hosts to register in order to make the process work. Over the last year, we have held eleven town hall meetings to explain the registration process, repeatedly emailed hosts to encourage them to register, and convened scores of meetings with individual hosts to help walk them through the required registration steps.

But instead of fixing the process, the Board of Supervisors recently passed a hastily-crafted proposal requiring Airbnb to remove all unregistered hosts. This legislation ignores the reality that the system is not working and this new approach will harm thousands of everyday San Francisco residents who depend on Airbnb. It also violates federal law.

In particular, the proposal:

1. Puts many San Franciscans at risk of eviction or foreclosure while doing nothing to fix the broken registration process.
An estimated 1,200 San Franciscans avoided foreclosure or eviction by hosting on Airbnb. These hosts have been asked to register with the City, but the ever-changing and confusing process simply doesn’t work for many residents, particularly senior citizens, people who occasionally share their space, work several jobs, and have limited time for repeated in-person application meetings.

We have proposed a wide range of improvements, both large and small, that would help fix the process, including:

  • Creating a one-stop, online permit application process.
  • Creating a grace period for new hosts to get registered.
  • Creating flexibility for hosts who rent out their space fewer than 14 nights a year –  particularly important for hosts offering space when the City plays hosts to big events.
  • Do not require hosts who share their space via a Qualified Website Company like Airbnb to obtain a business license. Home sharers are already required to receive one license. A second license is duplicative and unnecessary.
  • End the requirement that hosts inventory and pay taxes on items like their sheets, blankets, pots and pans.

Despite the Board of Supervisors’ acknowledgement that the current process is broken, the proposal does nothing to address the problem. Instead, the new law doubles down on a broken system by threatening websites that don’t remove home sharers who can’t navigate a confusing, inefficient, and bureaucratic process that often takes months to complete.

2. Violates important federal laws that protect privacy and innovation on the internet.
The new law does nothing to fix the registration process and it violates federal law. Since 1996, the Communications Decency Act — an important federal law referred to as the “linchpin of the vibrant and successful Internet we know today” — has prevented local governments from holding websites responsible for content published by their users as the city is attempting to do here.

The new law also violates the federal Stored Communications Act, which creates uniform privacy protections for internet users and prevents cities from simply demanding that platforms turn over user information without a subpoena or other legal process.

A range of experts like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have repeatedly noted that these types of misguided and unlawful rules “would create a chilling atmosphere for online commerce and speech.” The Center for Democracy and Technology agreed, describing the city’s new approach as “unlawful” and noting that “the internet wouldn’t work if it were subject to piecemeal regulations by every state and City within the US.”

3. Ignores better alternatives that could protect San Francisco’s housing stock while respecting federal law
There are better ways to regulate home sharing and address the City’s concerns, ways that don’t violate important federal laws. While the CDA plainly prohibits local governments from following the approach taken by the City, it still allows platforms and municipalities to work together to craft rules that work for everyone. We are ready and willing to work with City government to find common ground on a legal, sensible approach to regulation that protects housing and simplifies the process, and we are hopeful this dialogue can continue as quickly as possible.

We share the City’s concern about unwelcome commercial operators converting affordable rental housing to illegal hotels. Within the last year, over 200 listings have been removed in San Francisco. In addition, the typical Airbnb listing in San Francisco is rented 48 nights per year, and in 2015 nearly a third of “entire home” listings rented on our site in San Francisco were rented out fewer than 14 nights total.

San Francisco is our hometown. Airbnb employs over 1,000 people here, and we’ve spent years working with City officials and other advocates to develop sensible rules. Airbnb was the first hosting platform to begin collecting and remitting hotel taxes on behalf of our hosts, and we have collected over $25 million for the City since 2014.

We recognize the need for platforms like Airbnb to play a bigger role in helping the City prevent the loss of affordable rental stock. While we have attempted to work with the City on sensible, lawful alternatives to this flawed new ordinance, we regret that we are forced to now ask a federal court to intervene in this matter. This is an unprecedented step for Airbnb, and one we do not take lightly, but we believe it’s the best way to protect our community of hosts and guests.

We believe that creative approaches are still possible and hope that the City will reconsider its current path and work with us towards building a new system that is legal, workable, and fair to everyone involved.