Special ed teacher evicted over Airbnb use. Not our problem, says Airbnb

By Dan Raile , written on April 7, 2014

From The News Desk

This morning the San Francisco Chronicle took to the inkwaves to tell the story of Jeffrey Katz, a special education teacher who is being evicted because his landlord discovered he had rented his unit on Airbnb.

An Airbnb media rep told Pando:
"Scofflaw landlords who are willing to break the rules and abandon their tenants to make a quick buck have been around for centuries, and we are as appalled by that activity as anyone. Thankfully, incidents like those you describe are incredibly rare, certainly on Airbnb.  People who occasionally share the home in which they live aren't hurting anyone, and landlords who seek any excuse to evict tenants so they can raise the rent are only helping themselves."
Airbnb refuses any liability for legal fees in such cases and only suggests that its Hosts review and consider the applicable laws in their city, providing links to the full texts of those laws.  Anyone who is not a lawyer may become understandably dizzy when reviewing and considering those laws, but in a nutshell: in San Francisco, it is a misdemeanor offense for any tenant in a building with four or more units to rent their couch, spare room or entire apartment over Airbnb or similar platforms. So the companies statement of solidarity above rings rather hollow, given that they are fully aware the city of San Francisco legal code doesn't give breaks because Airbnb Hosts "aren't hurting anyone."

I spoke with Joe Tobener, Jeffrey Katz’s attorney, this morning by phone. He told me that these sorts of incidents are on the rise and he is currently in the process of reviewing several more clients facing similar evictions.

“Why isn’t sharing the cost my clients’ legal fees part of Airbnb’s sharing economy?” Tobener asks. “Airbnb says that it is only a portal and can’t be held responsible for users who break the law by using their portal. But in San Francisco, this portal is explicitly enabling illegal acts.”

The Chronicle mentions Board of Supervisors' chair David Chiu and his upcoming legislation that will change the laws relating to Airbnb rentals, but doesn’t go into much detail.

Early reports suggest that Chiu’s legislation will lower the threshold from four-unit buildings to two-unit buildings, thus making Airbnb’ing of apartments more illegal. But, it will also provide a pathway to legality for landlords or tenants who want to let their spaces on Airbnb, in the form of a mandatory, city-issued certificate.  In order to obtain the city’s seal of approval, tenants and landlords will both need to be parties to process, which means no more hiding your Airbnb activity from your landlord.

Mr. Chiu's office declined to comment on the legislation as it is still being finalized.

To protect against evictions of the type Katz is facing – in which the landlord’s lawyers did not give him the customary three-day notice and “right to cure” (i.e. stop using Airbnb or you’re out) because Katz’s Aibnb activities constitute “illegal use” – the Chiu legislation will make three-day “right to cure” notices mandatory.

The upside to all of this is that the reason this is making news now is largely the result of pressures from tenants’ rights groups, an instance of grassroots activism actually pushing policy and corporate practices. Of course, there are more traditional political forces who would like to see Airbnb go away, not least hotel unions which have significance clout in a city where tourism continues to be the largest industry despite the tech boom.

Given the incredible rent increases in the city, landlords and their lawyers are intensely interested in exploiting any possibility to get rent-controlled tenants out and take advantage of the markups.

So here we have a situation where tenants’ rights organizations are rooting and waiting for former mayoral candidate and Board of Supervisor’s President Chiu (who attempted to outflank incumbent Mayor Ed Lee on the pro-tech side in the 2011 election) to rectify a situation that adversely affects tenants, by amending city laws to help protect both Airbnb users and, presumedly, Airbnb itself.

And nearly everyone but opportunistic law firms is calling on Airbnb to provide more explicit information for potential Hosts regarding the risks they are taking by using the service.

The other point of interest is that whereas past Airbnb PR fiascos in San Francisco have arisen from instances of the dwelling-sharing platform being abused by Hosts or Guests, in this case the problem hinges on the root legality of the company’s core business model.

It is unclear when Chiu’s legislation will finally take effect. But if and when it does happen, what will it mean to those whose use of Airbnb has directly deprived them of their erstwhile homes.

Whatever the outcome of that legislation, given the current atmosphere in the city, it’s not looking good for Airbnb in its hometown.

“We’re going to see a lot fewer Airbnb’s in San Francisco,” Tobener says.