Special-ed Jeffrey Katz teacher makes ends meet by hosting Airbnb guests in the living room of his San Francisco apartment. But last week, Katz found an eviction notice on his front door, for "illegally using the premises as a tourist or transient unit."
Katz contacted Airbnb, which "didn't seem quite interested." He requested help from tenants' activists, but "they made it abundantly clear that they dislike Airbnb," Katz said. "Even though I'm not taking rental stock off the market, they were less than sympathetic to my plight."
As Katz discovered, San Francisco's ban on short-term rentals is turning out to have teeth. People who rent out space on Airbnb, VRBO and other markets for temporary housing are facing fines by the City Planning Department and eviction on the grounds of illegally operating hotels.
"Using an apartment for short-term rentals is a crime in San Francisco," said Edward Singer, an attorney with Zacks & Freedman who filed the notice against Katz. "It's obviously not the same moral culpability as running a house of prostitution or manufacturing methamphetamines, but any illegal use is grounds for eviction.
"The law I'm using is that the city says there are hotels and there are apartments, and the two shall never meet," he said.
San Francisco bans all residential rentals of less than 30 days unless the hosts have a conditional use permit - an expensive and cumbersome process that virtually everyone ignores. The ban applies whether the hosts own or rent, paying guests visit frequently or once a year, or hosts rent out a room or an entire dwelling.
Airbnb's website tells people to check local laws and their leases. A specific section on San Francisco explains the prohibition on short-term rentals and links to various city codes.
"Unfortunately, we can't provide individual legal assistance or review lease agreements for our 500,000 hosts, but we do try to help inform people about these issues," said David Hantman, Airbnb head of global public policy. "We think we can best help by making sure the laws make sense."
In fact, the laws soon may change in San Francisco. Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has spent almost two years working on a framework for Airbnb's operations. The company's decision last week to start collecting the city's 14 percent hotel tax by summer may help Chiu's efforts. The new law would amend the codes that prohibit short-term rentals, among other provisions.
"We want landlords to want this activity to happen, and we want it to be legal," Hantman said.
Until then, Airbnb hosts roll the dice when they rent out homes, especially with neighbors watching.
"If you live next door or nearby, and all of a sudden a place is turned into a hotel with people coming in and out, generally that is not welcomed by most residents," said Christine Haw, Planning Department code enforcement manager.