Wrong way on Airbnb

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Caught off guard by the surg­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the “shar­ing econ­omy,” gov­ern­ments have strug­gled in re­cent years to adapt the rules they de­vel­oped for taxi and limou­sine ser­vices to ride-shar­ing out­fits such as Uber and Lyft. Now a new front is open­ing in the reg­u­la­tory battle, as the state Leg­is­la­ture and nu­mer­ous cities train their sights on room-shar­ing ser­vices such as Airbnb and Va­ca­tion Rentals by Owner. Ar­gu­ing that lo­cal gov­ern­ments don’t have the re­sources to stop il­le­gal short-term rentals, pro­pos­als in the Leg­is­la­ture and a hand­ful of cities around the state would re­quire Airbnb and its ri­vals to be­come de facto code en­forcers. There’s a role for room-shar­ing ser­vices to play in help­ing cities man­age the prob­lems posed by short-term rentals, but that’s not it.

A good ex­am­ple is what’s hap­pen­ing in Santa Mon­ica. The city’s zon­ing or­di­nance bars short-term rentals in res­i­den­tial ar­eas, but the city isn’t en­forc­ing the widely flouted ban. In­stead, it has ten­ta­tively ap­proved a new or­di­nance that would al­low a dwelling to be rented out only when the pri­mary res­i­dent ob­tains a li­cense and re­mains on the premises while the renter is there.

That’s one way to de­ter land­lords from de­priv­ing the city of much-needed per­ma­nent hous­ing by con­vert­ing apart­ments into un­reg­u­lated ho­tels. Where the pro­posal goes off the rails, though, is in re­quir­ing the room-shar­ing com­pa­nies to reg­u­larly re­port to city of­fi­cials who’s list­ing prop­er­ties at what ad­dresses, along with the num­ber of days each prop­erty has been rented out and the price paid. That would set a danger­ous prece­dent for forc­ing pri­vate com­pa­nies to mon­i­tor the be­hav­ior of their cus­tomers on be­half of the gov­ern­ment. If it’s good for Airbnb, why not re­quire au­tomak­ers to have their cars gen­er­ate re­ports for the po­lice when­ever they’re driven faster than 70 mph in Cal­i­for­nia, the high­est pos­si­ble legal speed? Or re­quire con­trac­tors to alert the city when they’re asked to build an ad­di­tion that’s too large?

The Leg­is­la­ture is con­sid­er­ing a bill that would go even fur­ther, man­dat­ing that on­line rental plat­forms bar list­ings of prop­er­ties in ar­eas where it’s il­le­gal. Even if the ser­vices found a way to stay on top of the block-by-block zon­ing rules in ev­ery com­mu­nity, there’s no way for them to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween what’s legal and il­le­gal in a com­mu­nity that, like Santa Mon­ica, bars rentals only when the owner isn’t present.

On­line rental ser­vices can and should do more to help cities col­lect the tran­sient oc­cu­pancy taxes that hosts should be pay­ing, as Airbnb has agreed to do in three Cal­i­for­nia cities. And they can make it eas­ier for lo­cal gov­ern­ments to use their sites to track down units that aren’t legal. But if law­mak­ers try to turn them into arms of the gov­ern­ment, peo­ple will quickly shift their rentals to other sites such as Craigslist that aren’t equipped to col­lect their data. Such a move won’t make th­ese rentals any less popular, it will just make them harder to reg­u­late.

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