Housing activists urge city to investigate Airbnb rentals at Hollywood site

In the latest skirmish in Los Angeles' expanding war over the sharing economy, housing and labor activists are demanding the city investigate a Hollywood apartment building that they claim "skirted" rent control regulations by offering apartments for short stays through the Airbnb website.

At a news conference Wednesday outside the 1920s building a short distance from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the activists argued that Airbnb rentals at the Cherokee Avenue location have taken needed housing off the market and turned it into more lucrative night-to-night rentals to tourists.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Hollywood Airbnb: An article in the July 16 California section about concerns raised by activists about Airbnb rentals at a Hollywood apartment building said listings for units there had been removed from the Airbnb website. Some listings at the building remain on the site.
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They shared screenshots of Airbnb listings, since removed, advertising multiple units at the building and noted the apartments are regulated by the city's rent stabilization ordinance, which restricts how much landlords can raise rents on tenants.

"This hemorrhaging of rental housing stock in Hollywood is a real and present danger to the welfare of thousands of individuals and families who live, work and have made Hollywood their home," said Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center.

Renting out homes or apartments for fewer than 30 days is prohibited in many residential areas of Los Angeles. But such rentals can be legal under certain circumstances, depending on zoning and permits. Planning officials said Wednesday they could not immediately determine whether short-term rentals were legal at the Hollywood building.

Even if short-term rentals in the building are legal, "there's not enough housing in Hollywood, and taking these off the market exacerbates that problem," said Roy Samaan, a research and policy analyst at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an advocacy group focused on labor and environmental issues.

Thomas Nitti, an attorney representing the company that owns the building, said that any vacation rentals there were being phased out to avoid problems with the city. Airbnb listings for units in the building have been removed. An Airbnb spokeswoman said the host renting out the units would no longer be allowed to accept bookings on the company's website, but provided few details on the reason for the change.

"We routinely review our platform to ensure our hosts are delivering the kinds of experiences our guests expect and deserve," spokeswoman Alison Schumer said in an emailed statement.

Housing activists also alleged at the news conference that Lance Robbins, who lost his state license as a real estate broker a decade ago after being repeatedly convicted for city building code violations, had business ties to the building. A group of apartments that includes the Hollywood building is among the "other projects" listed on the website of Urban Smart Growth, a real estate development and management company that identifies Robbins as its principal and manager.

Robbins, an attorney, said in a phone interview that it had been many years since he had faced the charges cited by activists, which he called "politically motivated." He said he did not own the Cherokee Avenue building, but declined to say whether he had a connection to the company listed as the owner or to the building management.

"I am bound by my ethical obligations to my client not to discuss it," Robbins said.

Robbins added that the position of his client, whom he declined to identify, is that "the activities at that building are lawful."

A recent report by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy estimated that more than 7,000 homes and apartments have been taken off the market for use as short-term rentals.

Airbnb argues that such analyses, which scrape data from the Airbnb website, are flawed. The company says the vast majority of its L.A. hosts rent out space in their own homes. The firm issued its own report this year stating that the number of vacant housing units in San Francisco — another major Airbnb destination — remained "essentially unchanged" between 2005 and 2013 and that Airbnb had "no material impact on housing availability" in the city.

A Los Angeles city report this year found such rentals do not remove units from rent control because a vacant unit rented out for brief stays would still fall under the city rules, whether rented for long or short periods. But Samaan said that because Airbnb rentals can generate more income, the practical result is that less rent-controlled housing is ultimately available to ordinary tenants.

City Councilman Mike Bonin has proposed rules that would prohibit Angelenos from offering such rentals at any home or apartment covered by rent control. They would also be barred from offering short stays at a location that was not their main residence, a rule meant to stop housing from being bought up and operated like hotels.

The Los Angeles Short Term Rental Alliance, which represents vacation rental hosts, said in light of the housing shortage facing the city, rent-controlled units should not be used for tourist stays. "We don't want to be part of the problem," said Robert St.Genis, its director of operations.

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