Lawsuits target Airbnb rentals

LAWSUITS TARGET AIRBNB RENTALS

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office last week filed a pair of lawsuits against local landlords who illegally rent out apartments on a short-term basis, units that had been cleared of tenants using the Ellis Act. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Tenants Unions has hired attorney Joseph Tobener to file more such lawsuits, and he is preparing to file at least seven lawsuits involving 20 units.

The lawsuits are the latest actions in a fast-moving crackdown on Airbnb and other online companies that facilitate short-term apartment rentals that violate city laws against converting apartments into de facto hotel rooms, including VRBO.com and Homeaway.com.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu recently introduced legalization that would legalize, limit, and regulate such rentals, a measure that will be considered this summer. That legislation comes on the heels of Airbnb’s decision to stop stonewalling the city (and us at the Guardian, which has been raising these issues for the last two years) by agreeing to start paying the transient occupancy taxes it owes to the city for its transactions and creating new terms of service that acknowledge its business model may violate local laws in San Francisco and elsewhere (see “Into thin air,” 6/6/13).

As we’ve reported, City Attorney Dennis Herrera has been working with tenant groups and others on a legal action aimed at curtailing the growing practice of landlords using online rental services to skirt rent control laws and other tenant protection, removing units from the permanent housing market while still renting them out at a profit.

“In the midst of a housing crisis of historic proportions, illegal short-term rental conversions of our scarce residential housing stock risks becoming a major contributing factor,” Herrera said in a public statement. “The cases I’ve filed today target two egregious offenders. These defendants didn’t just flout state and local law to conduct their illegal businesses, they evicted disabled tenants in order to do so. Today’s cases are the first among several housing-related matters under investigation by my office, and we intend to crack down hard on unlawful conduct that’s exacerbating—and in many cases profiting from—San Francisco’s alarming lack of affordable housing.”

Tobener tells the Guardian that the San Francisco Tenants Union hired him to discourage local landlords from removing units from the market. “The San Francisco Tenants Union is just fed up with the loss of affordable housing,” Tobener told us. “It’s not about the money, it’s about getting these units back on the market.” (Steven T. Jones)

 

SF LOOKS TO MARIN FOR RENEWABLES

Just in time for Earth Day, a renewed effort to reduce the city’s carbon emissions was introduced at the April 22 Board of Supervisors yesterday. Sup. John Avalos introduced a resolution calling for a study of San Francisco joining Marin Clean Energy, which provides renewable energy to that county’s residents.

The move is seen largely as an effort to circumvent Mayor Ed Lee’s opposition to implementing a controversial renewable energy plan called CleanPowerSF (see “Revisionist future,” April 15).

“Mayor Lee and the Public Utilities Commission objected to CleanPowerSF, but they have offered no other solution to provide San Franciscans with 100 percent renewable electricity,” Avalos said in a public statement. “With this ordinance, we can either join Marin or we can implement our own program, but we can no longer afford to do nothing.”

The resolution is the latest effort in the long saga to implement CleanPowerSF, San Francisco’s proposed renewable energy alternative to PG&E, whose current energy mix is only 19 percent renewable. Much of PG&E’s current mix is dirty and directly contributes to half of San Francisco’s carbon footprint, according to the city’s own recent Climate Action Strategy.

Joining Marin under a Joint Powers Authority would provide a vehicle for San Francisco to enact CleanPowerSF’s goals, long blocked by the mayor. San Francisco’s renewable energy effort may have lingered in legal limbo for years, but Marin made the switch to renewables in 2010.

“It’s something people want, and it also reduces greenhouse gas emissions,” Marin Clean Energy Executive Officer Dawn Weisz told the Guardian. Much of Northern California, she noted, has little choice but to use PG&E for their electricity.

“The people never chose to have a monopoly in place,” she said. “People like having choices.” (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)

BEACH FIRES CONTAINED

The National Parks Service is once again moving to limit and maybe even ban fires on Ocean Beach, replaying an episode from 2007 that was temporarily solved by volunteers and artistic new fire rings placed by the group Burners Without Borders, despite a lack of follow-through by NPS’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Citing complaints about burning toxic materials, leaving messes, and people drinking on the beach (gasp!), the GGNRA this week announced a summer pilot program that would include moving the curfew up from 10pm to 9pm, installing a dozen new fire rings, and improved public outreach and monitoring of the conditions on the beach.

“We [have] over the years seen a rising problem over safety and general breaking of park rules like broken bottles. And with incidents of assault and underage drinking, mostly occurring during the night, GGNRA Area Director Howard Levitt told the Guardian.

But Tom Price, who helped create the 2007 compromise, said GGNRA never kept its end of the bargain — such as installing more rings to supplement the half-dozen created by artists, or creating visible signage so visitors would know what the rules area — and now it’s acting in a rapid, unilateral, and unreasonable way to ban beach fires.

“They never did the outreach or education or put out more fire rings,” Price said, urging people to let GGNRA know they support allowing fires on Ocean Beach, one of just two spots within GGNRA jurisdiction where they’re allowed (Muir Beach is the other). “The Parks Service has to be reasonable, and banning fires after 9pm in not reasonable.” (Steven T. Jones and Bryan Augustus)

TAX WEALTH, PIKETTY SAYS

French economist Thomas Piketty got a warm welcome in San Francisco last week when nearly 200 people turned out to hear him discuss what is fast-becoming the defining book of this new Gilded Era of escalating disparities in wealth: Capital in the 21st Century.

“The book has been so popular that Harvard University Press has run out,” The Green Arcade owner Patrick Marks said in introducing Piketty at a the April 22 event held across Market Street from the bookstore, in the McRoskey Mattress Company, in order to accommodate the large crowd.

Indeed, Capital has recently been lauded by a string of influential publications, ranging from The Nation through The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, all acknowledging this as perhaps the most exhaustive study on wealth data ever collected — and a clear-eyed warning that capitalism isn’t the self-correcting system that its biggest boosters claim it is.

Piketty’s work shows how when the return on capital is greater than the annual growth rate of the overall economy, which is usually the case (except when interrupted temporarily by the major wars of the 20th Century, or the 90 percent tax rate on the highest US incomes after World War II), that dynamic consolidates wealth in ever-fewer hands, which is bad for the health of the economic system. The only real cure, Piketty concludes, is a progressive global tax on wealth. Yet Piketty tries to avoid being too prescriptive, choosing to let his research speak for itself. “All I’m trying to do is present this book so everyone can make up his own mind,” Piketty told the gathering. In fact, he thinks the cure he outlines at the end of his book is less important than what comes before it: “You can disagree with everything in Part IV and still find interest in Parts I, II, and III.” (Steven T. Jones)