Three weeks ago, City Hall analysts concluded that over three-quarters of Airbnb listings are illegal. A scant 1,647 of the city’s roughly 7,046 Airbnb entrepreneurs have bothered to register their listings with the Office of Short Term Rentals.
At the time, Airbnb said that it was working its hardest to come down on scofflaws. Now, two San Francisco lawmakers are proposing a little extra incentive to get the ball rolling: A fine of up to $1,000 a day for every illegal listing on any short-term rental site. That would be over $26.5 million a week, if the full penalty were applied to every off-the-books listing right now.
Supervisors David Campos and Aaron Peskin will introduce the proposal at tomorrow’s meeting of the full board. If passed, it would require that a web platform confirm that a housing unit is registered with the city before hosting its ads on the site, and reply within 24 hours to any complaint from the OSTR. Or else.
"How the hosting platform proves they have verified a registration number is up to them," reads a press release from Campos’s office. "They can place the registration number on the listing, require the host to add it themselves, or the company can send the registration number directly to the City."
Right now, Airbnb doesn’t put registration numbers on listings, making it hard for the company to actually keep specific track of the more than two million listings in 34,000 cities around the world. Asked for comment, an Airbnb spokesperson hinted that the "legal enforceability of this law is questionable" but repeated past vows to cooperate with city law.
The question of whether the proposal would be legal hinges on a federal law that says websites aren't legally accountable if the public uses them for illegal doings. For example: Craigslist can’t be sued if someone fleeces you with a phony ad, and YouTube can’t be sued when people upload copyrighted music and films to their channel.
Whether or not San Francisco can penalize Airbnb directly for illegal listings depends on the strict interpretation of that law: The city would have to argue that all it’s doing is placing a legal benchmark that the sites can meet however they like, while Airbnb et al would have to argue that the city is asking it to directly police user content.
Founded in San Francisco in 2008, Airbnb was most recently valued at $25.5 billion.