Cities all over the world, from Paris to San Francisco, are beginning to regulate the home-sharing service Airbnb. Santa Monica — one of the most popular markets for Airbnb in in the Los Angeles region — recently decided forgo the scalpel in favor of the hammer: last week all seven city board members voted to completely ban rentals of less than 30 days when the owner is not present. Though board members offered no public rationale, the advocates for the ban provided many. Residents complain that tourists make poor neighbors, hotels resent the competition for guests, and affordable housing advocates say Airbnb drives rents up by removing housing from the long-term rental market.
The Santa Monica ordinance stands in stark contrast to the path pursued by other cities, which have prohibited the conversion of houses into hotels while still allowing some short-term renting. San Francisco, another city with a severe housing affordability problem, recently passed an ordinance permitting residents to rent out their homes for up to 90 days when the owners are not present, provided owners register with the city and pay a hotel tax.
Santa Monica may feel justified in moving swiftly to curtail the perceived negative impacts of Airbnb, but its new ordinance will simply push perceived negatives to other cities and neighborhoods in the region. After all, Santa Monica has not eliminated its own attractiveness as a destination for tourists. It is a clever bit of business. Visitors will now use Airbnb in other parts of Los Angeles and then drive into Santa Monica, which will retain the money that tourists bring to their local economy.
The “not our problem” attitude fails to consider how the ban will affect other cities. This go-it-alone approach directly contradicts one of the guiding principles in the city’s Sustainable City Plan: “Santa Monica Recognizes Its Linkage with the Regional, National, and Global Community.” And the Airbnb ban is most definitely a sustainability issue: consider how many people will be adding to congestion on the 10 and the 405 to get to Santa Monica instead of walking or bicycling from a local Airbnb.
More broadly, the go-it-alone approach of Santa Monica reflects a core problem of metropolitan areas in the United States. Local control over land use enables cities to prohibit unwanted uses in their jurisdiction, including multi-family housing and now short-term rentals. In this light, Santa Monica’s decision is not surprising. The ban is in many ways the logical extension of Santa Monica’s broader unwillingness to shoulder its fair share of housing in the Los Angeles region. In the last ten years, Santa Monica has issued permits for less than 300 new housing units per year – a woefully low amount for such an attractive place to live and one with so much employment. Just as the Airbnb ban pushes tourists out and forces them commute in, the city’s unwillingness to build new housing forces people to live elsewhere and commute to Santa Monica for work.
Santa Monica’s city website advertises the city’s pride in having built two beach access pathways out of 15,000 recycled tires and providing 54 publicly available Electric Vehicle chargers throughout the city. Such efforts may make Santa Monicans pat themselves on the back, but they are dwarfed by the negative consequences of a housing policy that forces tens of thousands of people to live far away and commute into the city. No local sustainability programs will offset harm done by this regional housing-jobs imbalance.
We do not support the permanent conversion of long-term rentals to illegal hotels. This practice can and should be controlled with a reasonable ordinance like that of San Francisco. But preventing ordinary people from renting out their home for the weekend will not solve the housing problem in Santa Monica or greater Los Angeles. Addressing this issue will require a long-term increase in the supply of housing in popular places, and this can be achieved by reformingzoning rules that limit density and require excessive amounts of parking. In the short-term, reasonable regulation of Airbnb would be a win-win by providing a great place to stay for travelers and an extra revenue source for Los Angeles households.
Paavo Monkkonen is an assistant professor of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Nate Holmes will graduate from UCLA Luskin with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning in June.