L.A. plan would demand Airbnb hand over information so city can track down illegal rentals

Rules proposed Friday to regulate Airbnb and other vacation-rental websites in Los Angeles could set the stage for a political showdown, with the city seeking information from the companies in order to track down illegal rentals.

The plan would empower Los Angeles to fine the online platforms—and the hosts —if they advertised rentals that defied restrictions on where and how often rooms or entire homes could be used for short stays.

The websites also could be fined if they failed to hand over addresses and other information to the city. Airbnb and other companies have been reluctant to share data, including how long travelers had stayed and the price they paid, arguing that doing so would trample on hosts’ privacy rights.

The proposed law “takes a step backward, putting consumer privacy at great risk by requiring online platforms to give the government unfettered access to confidential user data without any idea of how that information would be used,” Airbnb spokeswoman Alison Schumer said in a statement.

But critics contend that requiring the websites to help find and halt illegal rentals is a crucial step in stopping scofflaws. City Councilman Mike Bonin said that if the companies don’t hand over information, “we’re shooting blind.”

“We’re not asking for a ton of deep, personal private information,” Bonin said. “What units are being rented? How often?”

The law would allow short-term rentals in Los Angeles but impose several restrictions:

People would be able to rent out only their primary residence, defined as the place they live at least six months out of the year. Hosts could rent out only that home, or a room within it, for up to 90 days annually.

They would be barred from offering apartments that fall under rent stabilization or affordable-housing covenants, and would have to pay the same kind of lodging taxes as hotels, which would go into a city fund for affordable housing.

The plan drew praise Friday from housing and labor advocates worried about how the rise of such rentals has affected housing availability.

Roy Samaan, a research and policy analyst with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, called the proposal “a great step forward.”

“It allows legitimate home-sharing without displacing rent-controlled tenants,” Samaan said.

But the Los Angeles Short Term Rental Alliance — which includes hosts who use Airbnb, HomeAway and other platforms — called the plan overreaching and misguided, saying it would hurt residents who rely on renting out a second home to support their families.

Bryce Fujii, an Airbnb host who lives in Canoga Park, said it would be “stifling” to be able to share his home for only up to three months of the year. Renting out a private bedroom has connected Fujii to global travelers and helped him make his mortgage payments, he said.

If L.A. passes the law, “it’s probably the nail in the coffin,” Fujii said. “I will be looking to leave California.”

The plan was released after a string of heated public hearings packed with rental hosts, housing advocates and neighborhood activists.

As it stands, short-term rentals are illegal in many residential areas of the city, according to a planning department memo. But Los Angeles has struggled to enforce those rules as Airbnb, VRBO and other websites explode in popularity, especially in tourist hot spots such as Venice and Hollywood.

Fans say such night-to-night rentals provide an economic lifeline to strapped Angelenos and a way to share a slice of their lives. Critics—including housing activists and hotel worker unions —complain they have disrupted neighborhoods and pulled needed housing off the market.

However, those critics largely have focused their ire on commercial operators renting out a string of homes or apartments nonstop, not people offering up a spare bedroom from time to time. Bonin said the proposal targets those “de facto hotels” while allowing “genuine home-sharing.”

Several other big cities, including San Francisco and Portland, Ore., already have regulations. Bonin and city planning officials said they had sought to learn from those efforts to make L.A.’s rules as easy as possible to enforce.

The proposal hinges on a registration system: Hosts would be given an official number that would have to be displayed in online listings. If they failed to do so, they could be fined —and so could the websites they use.

Hosts would be charged at least $200 daily for advertising a rental that lacked a registration number or otherwise broke the rules, while the websites would face fines of $500 a day.

Other violations could trigger stiffer fines: Hosts who rented out a room or home beyond the number of days allowed could be docked $2,000 per day. The websites, in turn, could be penalized $1,000 per day for refusing to turn over addresses of rentals that failed to register with the city.

Rental websites “say they want to crack down on illegal hotels,” city planner Matt Glesne said. “We’re putting the ball in their court a little bit and saying, ‘How can we work together?’”

Angelenos will be able to weigh in on the proposed rules at a May hearing; the city planning commission will take up the proposal in June. If approved, the law would then have to be vetted by the City Council.

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UPDATES

6:57 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from city planner Matt Glesne.

2:29 p.m. This article was updated with comments from an Airbnb spokeswoman and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin.

This article was originally posted at 12:39 p.m.

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