[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or $50 a night, Alex is offering a bed in the corner of her one-bedroom apartment, a block from Whole Foods, that houses her and another tenant. For $153 a night, Denise is offering a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment near Plummer Park with a parking space and a dining table that seats six. Joseph and Charles will rent for $75 a night a bedroom with en suite bath and access to a swimming pool and sauna in their condominium on Alta Loma Road.
These were among the 234 rooms or apartments identified as being in West Hollywood that were offered for rent on a recent day on Airbnb. One person, who identifies himself as a real estate agent, is offering six apartments in WeHo and Hollywood for short term rentals.
Airbnb was launched in 2007 by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who were offering air mattresses and breakfast for up to three guests a night to help them cover the cost of their San Francisco apartment. Today Airbnb has gone global, with 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries. It is the exemplar of the so-called “peer to peer” marketplace in which individuals offer one another products and services without having to go through retailers or business owners.
In West Hollywood, as elsewhere in the country, Airbnb is raising the hackles of some apartment building owners and tenants and raising questions with the city’s code enforcement staff about violations of WeHo’s zoning laws.
“It’s wrong on so many levels,” said leasing specialist Marco Colantonio. Colantonio was distressed to discover that tenants in two apartments in a building he manages were using Airbnb in violation of their lease agreement.
The discovery that the apartments were being rented out for short stays cast new light on the frequent comings and goings at Colantonio’s building. Colantonio said that he and other building tenants had been led to believe that the visitors were friends or family members of his residents.
Colantonio said that Airbnb takes away a landlord’s right to choose who to have in his building. He said that under-the-radar visitors raise concerns about safety because the guests aren’t subject to screening as are tenants.
“A landlord has the right to control who is occupying their property,” said Dennis Block, an attorney who specializes in tenant eviction. “Residents can use the service unless it violates laws regarding running a business or violation of the lease agreement. The resident could face eviction for using this site.”
Jeff Aubel, West Hollywood’s code compliance manager, said the city has received complaints from apartment residents about short-term rentals in their buildings and that 15 property owners believed to be illegally renting out space have been issued cease and desist orders.
Aubel said that using dwellings for short-term or vacation rentals violates WeHo’s zoning ordinance, which bars renting an apartment or room for fewer than 30 days. Someone who rents for fewer than 30 days faces a fine of $250 for the first violation, $450 for the second, $750 for the third and possible criminal charges for a fourth violation.
“The city’s concern is compliance with its land use regulations, not the use of a particular website to advertise available condos and apartments,” Aubel said. “Listings on a website like Airbnb, used primarily for the advertisement of short-term/vacation rentals, can be evidence of a land use violation …Violation of the municipal code may subject the violator to fines, injunction, and/or criminal prosecution.”
Airbnb also offers competition to the city’s hotels, whose room tax is a major source of revenue for West Hollywood. While there is no apparent activity among hotels in West Hollywood, lobbyists for the industry worldwide have been campaigning against Airbnb, noting that it robs hotels of clients and that apartments rented through Airbnb don’t have to meet the strict, and expensive, safety standards required of hotels.
Apartment residents who complain about short term rentals by their neighbors, and those who rent out their apartments to tourists, are understandably reluctant to talk on the record about the issue. But the issue has made news in places from nearby Silver Lake to Portland and New York City. Airbnb is even under fire in its home town of San Francisco— although the San Francisco Examiner reports that it is tenants who are worried about landlords using the service for fear they will take rental properties off the market if short-term rentals prove more profitable. In New York City, one apartment tenant was issued a fine of $2,400 last year after using Airbnb to rent out a room in his apartment; the fine was then overturned on appeal because his roomate had been in the home during the renter’s stay.
Nick Papas, an Airbnb spokesperson, noted that Airbnb hosts must agree to follow local rules and lease agreements, and that all first-time hosts get a reminder to check the laws where they live.
“Problems with landlords and tenants are incredibly rare, but if they happen, we notify the host so he or she can work with the landlord and reach resolution,” said Papas, who called the sharing economy “a new paradigm.”
Airbnb also points to its “trust and safety features,” which includes profiles of apartment renters and reviews by Airbnb users of the spaces they rent out.
“The more you know us, the more you love us … when we work together, leaders and community members around the world quickly see how Airbnb makes communities stronger,” Papas said.
He also said Airbnb is winning battles against short-term rental restrictions, citing Hamburg, Denmark, Amsterdam and Seoul as communities that embrace Airbnb. Stateside, the company counts as victories decisions in Grand Rapids and in San Luis Obispo.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that a New York man had been fined and did not include the information that the fine was overturned on appeal.