Debra J. Saunders

If ever there was a city built on the bedrock belief that the government should stay out of the bedroom, it is San Francisco -- unless you own the bedroom. Then you are not free to do whatever you want with the bedroom, because people who are not owners control what you can do with your own property.

Ergo, if you want to rent out a spare bedroom in your flat or, Goddess forbid, a standalone unit to tourists via Airbnb, VRBO or a similar platform, you might run into the long arm of the law. On Wednesday, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed complaints against two landlords for renting to tourists. That's a no-no because "short-term rental scofflaws" cut into the city's "scarce residential housing stock" when they rent to out-of-towners.

The press-savvy Herrera didn't go after a family that decided to rent out junior's basement bedroom while he is in college. Instead, he shrewdly cited "two egregious offenders," landlords who evicted tenants -- two of them disabled -- under the Ellis Act; then, in violation of the law, they allegedly rented out their property for hundreds of dollars a night.

Herrera was so surgical that even Airbnb lauded the lawsuits with this statement: "If a small number of predatory landlords are abusing platforms like ours to illegally evict tenants in search of a quick buck, we wholeheartedly support efforts to bring those landlords to justice and applaud the City Attorney for his actions."

Does the city have the right to tell homeowners and landlords what they can and cannot do with their property? Alas, yes. Zoning laws restrict certain neighborhoods to residential use. The planning code prevents the rental of residential apartments for periods of less than a month.

San Francisco's rent control laws are supposed to protect about 172,000 residential units by capping rent increases and curbing evictions. That system, Herrera contends, is threatened by owners who want to cash in on the so-called sharing economy by renting to out-of-towners by the night or the week.

One of the landlords Herrera is suing is Darren Lee, who bought a two-unit tenant-occupied Pacific Heights property in 2004 and then evicted the tenants under the Ellis Act. According to the complaint, one tenant, who had lived in the building for more than 10 years, was paying $1,087 per month for a four-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment in 2006. A family that had rented the other unit for two years paid $2,200. After the evictions, the Ellis Act capped what Lee could charge for those units at the old rents (plus inflation) until 2011.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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