Public Comment

The Problem with Short Term Rentals: Perspective of Berkeley Tenants Union

John T. Selawsky, on behalf of Berkeley Tenants Union
Friday June 05, 2015 - 11:32:00 AM

Recently a friend commented to me that he believed an unenforceable good law was worse than a bad law. At the time I wasn't sure I entirely agreed with him, but now his point is coming into additional focus. Here in Berkeley we are witnessing a housing crisis of community-changing proportions: escalating rents are displacing many long-term residents as well as creating a market where only the wealthy need apply. Affordable housing units are an asset that Berkeley's officials and planners should be fighting to protect; instead we are seeing Short-Term Rentals (Airbnb and others) proliferating with the City doing little or nothing to regulate and control the collateral damage. Current Berkeley law prohibits rentals of less than 14 days, yet there are over 1000 such rentals listed every day on short-term rental websites.  

Berkeley's City Council will be taking up the issue of short-term rentals at its June 9 meeting. Mayor Bates and Councilmember Droste, to their credit, have introduced a package of regulations and fees on the short-term rental market. Unfortunately, as the proposal is currently fashioned there is very little or no enforceability: it is a complaint driven ordinance. Lax enforcement will ensure poor compliance, as has been shown in San Francisco, where the supervisors have had to revisit an initially lax ordinance. Business licenses, registration fees, and terms and limits of use will not happen unless the City ensures enforceability, i.e., dedicates City staff to ensure compliance. The current 14-day law should be quickly enforced so that property owners know there will be consequences for non-compliance. Residents, including tenants, rights of privacy and safety need to be protected. Compliance must be mandatory, not voluntary.  

Berkeley Tenants Union has long argued the Short-Term Rental market is a continuing and escalating threat to affordable housing in Berkeley, and elsewhere. Unregulated markets are dollar driven, not community driven. The "sharing economy" is based on profit and a disdain for community needs. If money is passing hands it is hardly sharing. 

Any new ordinance needs to be simple and direct in its intent and compliance. To that end Berkeley Tenants Union is supporting a number of amendments offered by Councilmember Arreguin. His modifications add enforceability and clarity to the original proposal. At this critical time for housing in Berkeley existing rental units have to be protected for residents, not made available exclusively to tourists and short-term visitors.