Stop Blaming Airbnb for Your Apartment Search Woes

Focusing on how home-sharing sites are worsening L.A.’s rental market is diverting us from addressing much bigger housing problems

One of the greatest success stories to emerge from the “sharing economy” is Airbnb, which enables everyday folks to earn a bit of extra income by renting rooms—and entire houses—to visitors for short-term stays. From a college kid with a spare bed to an empty nester with a guest house, thousands of enterprising locals are enjoying the benefits of playing amateur hotelier.

What’s considered a windfall for some, however, is being perceived as a threat by others, namely, Los Angeles renters, who are facing an unprecedented rise in apartment prices and a shrinking inventory. A 2014 report from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs determined that L.A. County is the most unaffordable rental market in the country, with Angelenos dedicating 47 percent of their income on average to cover basic housing costs. (The recommended cap is closer to one-third.)

Last spring neighborhood activists began organizing protests against Airbnb, accusing the service of ravaging the market for residents. But with approximately 12,500 short-term listings on the site, the number is negligible compared with the 500,000 units the city needs to meet demand. Mayor Eric Garcetti is attempting to address the crisis with the “Sustainable City pLAn,” whereby permits for 100,000 new units would be issued by 2021. Note the word permits—actual construction is expected to take a while.

Anxious communities are finding legal ways to reduce Airbnb’s presence. Santa Monica recently adopted an ordinance, considered the strictest in the state, that bans rentals of less than 31 days. Concerns about irresponsible guests also prompted the Santa Monica City Council to require hosts to live in rented properties (so much for Airbnb’s “entire home” feature). The rules are designed to prevent whole buildings from becoming de facto budget hotels, but overall the restrictions aren’t going to have much effect on Santa Monica’s limited apartment availability. (Manhattan Beach recently enacted a similar ban.)

It is possible for ventures like Airbnb to enhance local coffers. For instance, the L.A. City Council is considering applying a “transient occupancy tax,” or TOT, to short-term rentals, similar to what hotel guests are required to pay. A 10 to 15 percent TOT on Airbnb properties could help ease the city’s $165 million budget deficit.

If Airbnb poses a threat, it’s because the site and the odd vacant room are distracting people from finding solutions to our housing drought. Powerless renters are left praying for development like the rest of us who keep praying for rain.