Protect housing costs, increase regulation of short-term rentals

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Joy Lin/Staff

On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council will vote on guidelines to send to the Planning and Housing Advisory Commissions for legalizing and regulating short-term rentals (defined in Berkeley as rentals lasting fewer than 14 days) and vacation rentals (short-term rentals during which the host is not present), which are advertised on websites such as Airbnb. Despite such rentals being prohibited in the city of Berkeley, as well in many other cities throughout California and the country, Airbnb and other websites — such as Craigslist, FlipKey, HomeAway and VRBO — have advertised such rentals in Berkeley.

In response, City Council has been discussing regulating and legalizing such rentals, which has been done in other as cities such as Portland, San Francisco and San Jose. In March, the ASUC Senate, comprising the official representatives of the student body, unanimously voted to support strong regulations on short-term and vacation rentals in order to protect the city’s supply of affordable housing.

Research has shown that short-term and vacation rentals increase the costs of housing by reducing the supply of affordable housing available on the market. One study, actually commissioned by Airbnb, showed that the introduction of Airbnb in San Francisco increased the price of a one-bedroom unit by $19 per month. But the researcher who conducted the study, professor Thomas Davidoff of the University of British Columbia, estimated that if most Airbnb listings are posted by investors rather than residents, the rental price effect could actually be as high as an increase of $76 per month. (These numbers likely understate the effect on students, who can rarely afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.)

The city of Berkeley has long suffered from a lack of affordable housing, making living in Berkeley unaffordable for many workers and students. If City Council decides to legalize short-term and vacation rentals, such as those found on Airbnb, then it must adequately regulate them in order to protect the city’s supply of affordable housing. The proposal put forward by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Lori Droste, while a good start, would fail to adequately regulate short-term and vacation rentals so that they do not reduce the supply of affordable housing in Berkeley. As currently written, the guidelines in this bill would allow a host to rent his or her unit for an unlimited number of days if they are present in the unit (a provision that Portland and San Francisco have found to make enforcement virtually impossible), would make enforcement solely complaint-based, would not establish a public directory or require companies to share data, and would not require advertisements to include a permit number.

In order to strengthen enforcement, City Council should amend the language in the bill to limit vacation rentals to 90 days per unit, regardless of whether the host is present; require city staff to conduct periodic inspections, which is required in other cities; allow only one host for each unit; create a public directory and require companies such as Airbnb to share data with the city; and require advertisements to include the host’s permit number.

Additionally, City Council should adopt the amendments put forward by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, such as referring the regulations to the Rent Stabilization Board, requiring the rented unit to be the owner’s or tenant’s primary residence, prohibiting short-term or vacation rent from exceeding the lawful rent ceiling and requiring the city to have adequate staff to enforce the ordinance.

Allowing companies such as Airbnb to (legally) operate in the city of Berkeley poses significant risks to our city’s limited supply of affordable housing that that may outweigh the benefits of legalization. As a result, if we decided to legalize such rentals, we must ensure that that we adequately regulate them: Berkeley’s affordable housing supply is extremely fragile and therefore requires the utmost care through strong regulations.

City Council will be meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Middle School (1500 Derby St.). Those who care about affordable housing are able to come speak at the meeting in order to call for strong regulations on short-term and vacation rentals.

Marium Navid is the 2015-16 ASUC external affairs vice president, and Matthew Lewis is a UC Berkeley senior who works on affordable housing in the city of Berkeley.

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