As anyone who’s lived in a major coastal American city knows, apartment renting is about as far from an unregulated free market as you can get. Legal and regulatory stipulations govern rents and rent increases, what can and cannot be included in a lease, even what constitutes a bedroom. And while the costs and benefits of most housing policies can be debated and deliberated, it’s generally well known that housing rentals are subject to extensive regulation.
But some San Francisco tenants have recently learned that, in addition to their civil responsibilities under the law, their failure to live up to some parts of the city’s housing code may trigger harsh criminal penalties as well. To wit: tenants who have been subletting out part or all of their apartments on a short-term basis, usually through web sites like Airbnb, are finding themselves being given 72 hours to vacate their (often rent-controlled) homes.
San Francisco’s housing stock is one of the most highly regulated in the country. The city uses a number of tools to preserve affordable housing and control rents, while at the same time largely prohibiting higher buildings that would bring more units online, increasing supply and lowering prices. California’s Ellis Act provides virtually the only legal and effective means of getting tenants (especially those benefiting from rent control) out of their units — but it has the perverse incentive of causing landlords to demolish otherwise useable housing stock.
Again, the efficiency and equity ramifications of these policies can be discussed; the fact that demand curves slope downward, however, is really not up for debate.
Under San Francisco’s municipal code, it may be a crime punishable by jail time to rent an apartment on a short-term basis. More importantly, it gives landlords the excuse they need to evict tenants they otherwise can’t under the city’s and state’s rigorous tenant protection laws. After all, they’re criminals!
Here’s the relevant section of the code:
Any owner who rents an apartment unit for tourist or transient use as defined in this Chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. Any person convicted of a misdemeanor hereunder shall be punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 or by imprisonment in the County Jail for a period of not more than six months, or by both. Each apartment unit rented for tourist or transient use shall constitute a separate offense.
Here lies the rub. There are certainly legitimate reasons to prohibit the short-term rental of a unit in an apartment or condo building — some people want to know who their neighbors are, and a rotating cast of people coming and going could potentially be a nuisance.
But that’s a matter for contracts and condo by-laws to sort out. If people value living in units that they can list on Airbnb or sublet to tourists when they’re on vacation, that’s a feature like a gas stove or walk-in closet that can come part-and-parcel of the rental through contractual stipulation. Similarly, if people want to live in a building where overnight guests are verboten, that’s something landlords or condo boards can adjudicate. The Coase Theorem can be a powerful tool, if the law will allow it.
The fact that, so far as I can tell, there’s no prohibition on having friends or family stay a night — or even a week — under San Francisco code, it seems that the underlying issue isn’t a legitimate concern about other tenants’ rights, but an aversion to commerce. From the perspective of my neighbor, there’s no difference between letting my friend from college crash in my spare bedroom for a week or allowing someone I’ve never laid eyes on before do the same in exchange for cash.
The peer production economy is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot that needs to be worked out. Laws like those in San Francisco — which circumvent the discovery process of markets — prevent landlords, tenants, condos, homeowners and regulators from learning from experience and experimentation — and lock in a mediocre system that threatens to put people in jail for renting out a room.