Airbnb Is Infuriating the Neighbors. Is It Time for New Rules?
Illustration by Fred Noland
You're one of six college friends in, say, New York or even Nepal, and you want to visit Hollywood for a weekend. You can book a hotel for $75 to $350 a night, or you can seek an apartment or room in somebody's home via Roomorama, VRBO or the granddaddy of online short-term rental services, Airbnb.
On Airbnb, you and your pals find a cozy, clean one-bedroom apartment in a 12-unit Franklin Village co-op — a complex owned mostly by on-site residents — for $150 per night. Welcome to the "sharing economy," represented by services such as Airbnb in the private home/room rental business.
After your host, the apartment unit's owner, gives you the keys and a gate opener, you and your compatriots go drinking before rolling two rented minivans into your allocated space under the building. You drag your suitcases up the stairwell at 2 a.m. to be confronted by the irate homeowners association president. The neighbors are weary of tourists jarring them awake in a residential neighborhood.
They're even madder at the host, for turning their homes into a hotel.
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The following morning, you're met with hostile glares — one neighbor, who lives next door, mutters that he was kept awake by the sound of the toilet being flushed all night by six occupants. Another screams at you to move the second minivan because it's blocking her car. Of course you didn't know that only one vehicle is allowed per space. You shrug. What difference does it make? You'll be gone tomorrow.
This scenario is playing out from Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks, Hollywood to Venice, as the city of Los Angeles wrestles with how to regulate Airbnb and its brethren. According to the San Francisco–based company's records, Airbnb hosts collected $43.1 million in L.A. gross rents last year.
Yet with notable exceptions, local zoning codes ban these rentals of fewer than 30 days in residential L.A., for the reasons above and more. According to the Venice Neighborhood Council, almost all Airbnb rentals in residential L.A. are illegal.
Yet trying to determine whether Airbnb is violating the zoning code on a particular property can be a byzantine task, thanks in part to L.A.'s impenetrable system of property zones layered with subzones and sub-subzones.
And then there's the question of whether anyone among City Hall's 50,000 employees is tasked with the job at all.
As L.A. city planning director Alan Bell explained, in a widely circulated email:
"Short-term rentals are prohibited in agricultural zones; the R1 and other single-family residential zones; the R2, RD and R3 lower-density, multifamily residential zones; and RAS3 residential accessory service zone. Areas governed by specific plans, overlay zones and other specially zoned areas may have different rules."
Good luck figuring out what's legal on your block, whether it's in Canoga Park, DTLA or Mar Vista.
But let's try just one property, the Airbnb operating inside the Franklin Village co-op.
City planner Katie Peterson guided L.A. Weekly through the city's public ZIMAS interactive map, at zimas.lacity.org, which any member of the public with some patience can use. She discovered that the property is in a forbidden, RD zone. But it took Peterson, a zoning expert, the rest of an afternoon to research if there were any "specific plans" or "overlay zones" that would override that ban. There weren't.
Mayor Eric Garcetti's response to L.A. residents upset by disruptive, Airbnb-style operations next door has been to create a "whistleblower" program. Violators are sent a warning from city treasurer Antoinette Christovale that they may be liable for hotel taxes, and to contact the Department of Finance, which sent out an unknown number of such warnings last year. It's an odd enforcement system, since officials depend on violators to turn themselves in, and Finance is trying to collect taxes on an activity that's probably illegal.
An indignant resident also can try calling the Department of Building and Safety, which may or may not levy a fine.
In a letter last year to the L.A. City Council, a group calling itself the Short-Term Rental Awareness Coalition warns that even Airbnb says the homegrown enterprise is being taken over by speculators tapping a Wild West housing market.
That, in turn, is screwing up the overheated, overcrowded housing stock.
As residents dish out $2,000 a month for a nothing apartment in most of L.A. these days, investors and developers are upping the ante. A 2014 study by UCLA determined that L.A. now is the most unaffordable city in the nation for renters, who pay a stiff 47 percent of their income for rent.
But investors are buying certain well-located rental stock, then subleasing the homes or apartments to Airbnb tenants at more than the $2,000 or $3,000 a renter might pay.
Owners in hot spots Venice and Silver Lake have evicted long-term tenants for probably illegal Airbnb hotel "conversions." People who never thought of being landlords are getting into the act.
In a trendy mid-L.A. neighborhood, a retired couple whom L.A. Weekly agreed not to name has converted an enclosed garden into a mini-sanctuary for a couple of chickens, a miniature horse, two pot-bellied pigs, a couple of goats, sheep and a turtle.
With the couple's knowledge of farming and their rigorous devotion to cleanliness, their tiny farm-in-the-city is odor-free — and alluring to Airbnb renters.
Behind their horse stable, they've converted an outbuilding into a trio of rustic-style vacation rentals. Without the extra money they'd survive, but it's welcome.
Their discreet "cottage industry" has drawn no neighbor complaints, though it's probably illegal. The one problem they've encountered was a con artist who cited a "squatters rights" law to announce that she was staying long-term — and rent-free. (It took an arduous eviction effort to force her out of their backyard.)
At the Franklin Village co-op, board president Chris Danna says major problems recur with "one-nighters in town for a good time, and consideration for others just isn't a priority." He pleaded with one co-op owner to find more settled, long-term Airbnb visitors. Another fed-up neighbor finally reported her through Mayor Garcetti's whistleblower program.
That, not surprisingly, did not work. Neither the Department of Finance nor Department of Building and Safety is prepared for all the landlords and building owners keen on turning residential neighborhoods into de facto business districts.
Last year, the Franklin Village co-op board restricted renters to a minimum stay of 30 days. That made no difference. The renegade owner there simply says she's dealing with "guests," not "tenants."
Airbnb has been lobbying municipal governments to allow motel-style overnighting rules on residential streets, and it won a sweeping victory in Portland, Oregon: The company now has unrestricted ability to arrange short-term rentals in Portland's single-family homes.
Last August, the L.A. City Council unanimously approved a planning recommendation to study the pros and cons of the so-called sharing economy and its impact on the affordable housing stock. Policy changes may come as soon as this year.
Monica Semus, an 86-year-old Hollywood Hills homeowner, says her neighbors in that community of winding streets and soaring views have died or have moved — and many of the survivors now rent out their places via Airbnb.
"The whole neighborhood is now people who come and go every week or two. They're nice enough people," she says ruefully, "but I have no real neighbors anymore."
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