New soldiers in Airbnb battle: PR and politics

Both fans and foes of the Airbnb model are taking their fight into the arena of politics and PR

Much as Uber upended the taxi industry, Airbnb shook up the lodging world by matching travelers with people eager to rent out rooms.

Now it's shaking up Los Angeles City Hall.

And suddenly Hollywood homeowners advertising hip vacation pads, Venice surfers combing Craigslist for affordable apartments and housekeepers tidying beds at sleek downtown hotels have warring armies of PR pros, lobbyists and activists prodding city leaders to protect their interests.

Echoing similar battles in New York, San Francisco and in other cities, L.A.'s fight pits the "sharing economy," with its embrace of the buzzword "disruptive," against an unexpected alliance of critics.

------------
FOR THE RECORD:

Airbnb: An article in the April 5 California section about the community debate over Airbnb rentals in Los Angeles referred to Lindsey Horvath as mayor of West Hollywood. She is the mayor-elect. —
------------

The change that triggered this conflict came fast: Airbnb, the key player in the drama, has succeeded mightily in the mere seven years since it blossomed in Northern California's fertile start-up soil. Its business model — make it easy for budget-minded travelers to connect with homeowners eager to bolster their recession-era bottom lines — led to global expansion.

Venture capitalists threw money its way, pushing its value toward $20 billion and inspiring a slew of imitators to jump into the water. As such websites have grown in popularity, some users have taken the "sharing" model to another level, operating entire homes and buildings much like hotels.

Not everyone is thrilled.

Housing activists say the phenomenon of offering whole apartments and houses has pushed affordable rentals off the already tight market.

Hotel employee unions warn that this new way for travelers to bypass traditional lodging could undermine hard-fought victories for the people who eke out a living by vacuuming hotel rooms or making up beds.

Neighborhood activists say the main thing being disrupted is their quality of life.

And both fans and foes are taking their fight into the arena of politics and PR.

Critics have banded together in such groups as Keep Neighborhoods First, a coalition that wants L.A. city agencies to crack down on "commercialized" rentals in banned areas.

Housing and neighborhood activists have found allies in labor groups worried about Airbnb rentals becoming an unregulated alternative to hotels where they have won victories.

Meanwhile, Airbnb alone spent more than $100,000 last year lobbying city officials.

Though Airbnb has shied from publicly spelling out exactly what kind of regulations it would support in L.A., members of Peers, an advocacy and support group for the sharing economy, have shown up at neighborhood meetings in Venice and Silver Lake to resist a clampdown on renting rooms or homes.

Such rentals are currently banned from big swaths of L.A., but the city has struggled to enforce those rules. Many hosts are arguing for legalization and amnesty from fines — a move they say could help bring in millions more in tourism taxes as hosts step out of the shadows.

"I would be worried — and in fact angry — if the city were to say I couldn't do this with my house," said Phill Wilson, who uses Airbnb to rent out three bedrooms in his Los Feliz home for anywhere from $50 to $100 a night. The 59-year-old said that money helps him support his elderly parents and grown children and eases his financial fears as he heads toward retirement.

He enjoys offering up local tips to guests from far-flung places. Neighbors haven't raised any complaints, Wilson said. "It's no different than when my relatives visit."

Local lawmakers say they want to take action. But they aren't sure what action to take. City officials have met to discuss the matter, but no new rules have been proposed.

"This is a new and emerging phenomenon," said Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents coastal areas of L.A. "I don't know if we even know enough about the industry yet."

A recent report by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an influential research and advocacy group with labor ties, estimated Airbnb had taken more than 7,000 houses and apartment units off the L.A. market — a figure Airbnb disputes. Alliance deputy director James Elmendorf argued L.A. should protect "true sharing," not "the proliferation of commercial leasing entities."

Gasps arose at a Venice Neighborhood Council meeting last month as residents watched a video citing numbers from the alliance report.

Among those in the crowd was Carlos Camara, who laments that his longtime apartment building is mutating into something like an oceanfront hotel, filled with tourists passing through the neighborhood to party. Whenever a tenant moves out, he says, the management company fixes up and furnishes the unit, puts a keypad on the door and turns it into a vacation rental for higher profit.

A representative for Venice Management Inc., who says the company manages the ocean-side building, stated in an email that the building was established decades ago as a hotel. The city housing department said it could legally be used as one. Nonetheless, the company stated that no vacationers were staying less than a month.

The company said that such vacation rentals had a "negligible" effect on housing availability and that the real problem was a lack of new construction in the popular area. Many tenants live next to vacation rentals without problems, the statement added.

Camara doesn't count himself as one of them. "I don't know who my neighbors are," he said. "It's like suddenly having a bar or a restaurant next to your house instead of a family."

Labor activists have joined forces with frustrated neighbors, teaming up at a recent protest in Venice, where protesters toted signs stamped "UNFAIRBNB." They note that L.A.'s big hotels will soon have to pay more than $15 hourly to their workers. But Airbnb and VRBO rentals have spawned a cottage industry that provides cleaning and fresh towels — one that doesn't fall under those rules.

"You have a new group of low-wage workers servicing a broad network of often illegitimate and commercially managed hotel accommodations," said Leigh Shelton, spokeswoman for the local chapter of hotel workers' union Unite Here. "That's concerning to us."

Airbnb says analyses such as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy report, which are based on scraping data from its website, are seriously flawed due to duplicative or rarely updated listings. It says the vast majority of its estimated 4,500 L.A. hosts are people like Wilson, sharing only the home that they live in.

But as Airbnb downplays the role of Angelenos who rent out multiple apartments or houses — and even appears to have booted some of them from its website — some of those same people have stepped forward to make their case at City Hall.

Many have joined the Los Angeles Short Term Rental Alliance, whose leaders argue that L.A. should crack down on nuisance rentals instead of barring any single kind of business.

"I've received permits. I've been paying taxes," says Venice vacation rental operator Sebastian de Kleer, co-founder of the alliance. "Why would the city want to put me out of business?"

When scores of protesters descended on his Venice offices this week, De Kleer emerged to talk to the crowd. He told them he was a small-business owner who starting renting property well before Airbnb hit the scene.

The group crowded around him, complaining about the rise of "illegal underground hotels."

"We want those houses back," Mark Lipman of the activist group People Organized for Westside Renewal said to De Kleer.

De Kleer says that before the protesters arrived, Airbnb removed scores of his listings and told future guests that their reservations had been canceled. He can still operate his rentals through his own site but complains that Airbnb dropped him and similar rental businesses because what they don't "match their PR story." Airbnb responded to questions about the removed listings with a brief statement saying it routinely reviewed its platform for "market quality" and adherence to its mission.

As L.A. wrestles with these new issues, other California cities have pressed forward with regulations: San Jose legalized such rentals and enlisted Airbnb to collect tourist taxes. San Francisco also legalized them but imposed some restrictions, including requiring hosts to live at their homes at least 275 days per year, a rule meant to halt nonstop rentals by absentee hosts. Perhaps the stiffest stand has been taken by West Hollywood, which says all such rentals are banned.

"We're a city that was founded on rent control," Mayor Lindsey Horvath said. "And what we we're hearing about was landlords trying to subvert our rent stabilization ordinance."

But the debate may not be settled even after L.A. drafts regulations, and each parry and thrust in this struggle over new ways of doing business seems to open a fresh area of debate.

In Portland, officials demanded that Airbnb reveal host names and addresses to track down scofflaws who had failed to seek a newly required city permit and undergo safety inspections. The company has balked at handing over that information without a subpoena, saying it would trample user privacy.

Critics of the company in L.A. argue that here, too, authorities will find it hard to enforce any rules unless the company hands over its data about who is hosting guests. Airbnb resists that argument.

"My phone can be programmed to store and send lots of information about where I am — it could even tell you if I crossed the street but didn't use the crosswalk," Airbnb regional head of public policy David Owen said in an email. "But we don't expect smartphone manufacturers to alert the police if someonejaywalks."

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesEmily for breaking news from L.A. City Hall

Times staff writers Soumya Karlamangla and Tim Logan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
68°