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L.A.'s new Airbnb ordinance is already at risk of being undermined

L.A.'s new Airbnb ordinance is already at risk of being undermined
Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin speaks moments before he an his colleagues unanimously passed an ordinance that he authored regulating Airbnb and other homesharing platforms on Dec. 11. (Los Angeles Times)

After 3½ years, the Los Angeles City Council finally passed an ordinance on Dec. 11 to regulate the kind of short-term home rentals popularized by Airbnb. The new rules should help ensure that the city doesn’t lose thousands of apartments in the midst of a housing shortage and homelessness crisis. That is, if the rules aren’t immediately undermined.

The limitations the city has placed on home sharing are moderate: Hosts can rent out their primary residence, but they need a special exemption if they want to do so more than 120 days per year. Apartments covered by the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance — those built before 1979 that have annually capped rent increases — cannot be put on Airbnb or other online platforms at all. Enforcement should also get easier: Online platforms will only be able to post listing from hosts who have registered with the city. The rules go into effect next July.

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This is a reasonable compromise between hosts who want to make some extra money and housing advocates concerned about the drain on affordable housing stock. It will allow Angelenos to put up out-of-towners in their spare bedroom or to rent out their whole house while they’re on vacation. At the same time, big commercial operators will be prohibited from leasing a dozen apartments to turn them into a money-making scheme on Airbnb. Housing advocates say this could result in 11,000 units going back into circulation.

Unfortunately this brand-new regulation may soon be weakened by unnecessary amendments and additional legislation.

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The first threat is an exemption from the ordinance for owner-occupants of small rent-stabilized apartment buildings, who would be allowed to home-share the units they live in. This would create a workaround and loophole that could put hundreds of low-income tenants at risk of eviction. It would be very easy for an unscrupulous landlord of a pre-1979 duplex or fourplex to claim that they are living in one of the units even if they are not, and then “home share” it almost full time. Rent-stabilized apartments are one of Los Angeles’ most important sources of reasonably priced housing; there’s no upside to risking their transformation into what are essentially hotel rooms.

Also slated for consideration by the City Council is a completely separate and as-yet unwritten “vacation rental” ordinance. This has the potential to undermine the new home-sharing ordinance by applying a less protective set of regulations to houses or apartments that are simply relabeled “vacation homes.” It is completely unnecessary; the rules that were just passed could be used to regulate second homes. And yet councilmembers have instructed the Planning Department to deliver a report on a potential vacation rental ordinance to the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee at their next meeting.

The push for the amendment and this additional “vacation rental” ordinance isn’t being led by mom-and-pop landlords or neighborhood groups, but by the lobbyists for home-sharing platforms and corporate housing firms. They have put a huge amount of effort and money into convincing a few key council members that they need to water down these regulations before they have even gone into effect. Airbnb alone has spent $1.2 million lobbying the city since 2016, and with a valuation above $30 billion, it can afford to keep going.

The hosts who oppose regulation wield their own kind of social capital. Predominantly white and middle class, they have come to public hearings to pursue only their own interests, continuing a longstanding Los Angeles tradition wherein homeowners try to control public policy for their own gain. While the platforms have cleverly marshaled a few lower-income hosts for key lobbying efforts, the Airbnb rental fight overall has been a textbook demonstration of upper-middle-class entitlement.

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For four years, hosts and home-sharing companies successfully used the common canard that “there are two sides.” But it’s clear to anyone who attended the public hearing on home sharing that the sides are accurately characterized as a few people who make money from home sharing and everyone else living in a city with a housing shortage. In a city of 4 million people, less than 0.5% are Airbnb hosts, making their ability to hold the rest of the city hostage to their self-interest all the more exasperating.

Still, given the financial resources of Airbnb and the social resources of hosts, we can expect to see continued efforts to roll back this much-needed regulation. The City Council was slow to deal with the problems of home sharing, but now that it has, it needs to protect the integrity of this ordinance.

It does Los Angeles no good to keep building new apartments, even affordable units, if we are simultaneously withdrawing them from the market and turning them into de facto hotel rooms. We need to protect our housing and use it as housing.

Cynthia Strathmann is the executive director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a nonprofit focused on tenant rights, healthy housing and equitable development.

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