Op-ed: Council must adequately regulate short term rentals to protect Berkeley’s housing supply

Tonight the Berkeley City Council will vote on legalizing and regulating short-term rentals, defined as rentals which last for less than fourteen days.  Currently, such rentals are illegal in Berkeley, though that hasn’t stopped multi-billion dollar companies such as Airbnb from ignoring the law.  With Airbnb’s assistance, certain landlords around the state have been able to remove entire apartment buildings from the long-term rental market by converting them into illegal hotels.  In Berkeley alone, 400 rent-controlled units are being used only as short-term rentals.  As a result, tenants who otherwise would have been able to live long-term in these units have been displaced, worsening Berkeley’s housing emergency.

After years of work and input from stakeholders such as the Berkeley Tenants Union, the ASUC, the Housing Advisory Commission, and the Planning Commission, on May 31 the City Council passed a first reading of an ordinance to both legalize short-term rentals for good actors who occasionally rent out a spare bedroom for the additional income, and regulate them so that certain bad actor-landlords who would permanently convert apartments into illegal hotel rooms cannot do so.  The ordinance contained numerous important protections for our housing supply, such as prohibiting accessory dwelling units from being used as short-term rentals (as promised by the City Council) and requiring postings to list the business license number to make enforcement feasible (similar to contractors and various other professions).

Unfortunately, however, the City Council has backpedaled from its previous commitments to protect affordable housing from corporate interests.  The council is now considering passing an ordinance which both eliminates the requirement to include the business license number on listings and allows many accessory dwelling units to be converted into short-term rentals.  After the first reading, Airbnb misled its hosts into believing that the ordinance would make it more difficult to legally rent out their homes, and directed them to send pre-written letters to the City Council in opposition. In reality, the May 31 ordinance would finally allow them to legally offer short-term rentals.

Circumnavigating the lengthy public process on this issue, the Mayor has proposed the city enter into a contract with Airbnb prior to passing any laws that regulate short-term rentals. This last minute proposal, created as a result of Airbnb’s lobbying efforts, has serious flaws. For example, it prohibits the city from collecting back taxes owed from the period Airbnb operated illegally in Berkeley.  Additionally, it makes enforcement difficult by limiting the city’s ability to audit Airbnb to ensure compliance, instead allowing the industry to “self-regulate.”


Fortunately, there is a simple solution.  As previously mentioned, on May 31 the City Council passed a first reading of an ordinance that allows residents who need additional income to use Airbnb, while also protecting our limited housing from being converted into short-term rentals.  It does so by requiring host platforms to list the business license number to ensure that enforcement is possible.  It bans all accessory dwelling units from being converted into short-term rentals, keeping the City Council’s promise to do so.  On Thursday, the City Council can and should protect Berkeley’s housing supply by passing a second reading of the May 31 ordinance and not approving the mayor’s proposed contract.

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Lewis is Housing Commission Chair for the Associated Students of the University of California.