Airbnb, an online service that helps people rent rooms to travelers from around the world, has allowed hundreds of Angelenos to turn their dwellings into a potentially lucrative source of income. But the influx of short-term guests has also led some neighbors to complain about noise, traffic and other annoyances. City officials could step up enforcement of an ordinance that bans short-term rentals in single-family neighborhoods, which would stop much of what's happening on Airbnb. That stricture, however, is overly broad. The right approach is to forbid uses of Airbnb that pose a real threat to the local quality of life.
The issues raised by San Francisco-based Airbnb are typical of the challenges posed by new online platforms that match buyers and sellers with unprecedented efficiency, helping people to use their assets and skills in unexpected ways. Just as EBay turns Internet users into retailers and Lyft lets car owners moonlight as limo drivers, so do Airbnb and other temporary lodging sites, such as vrbo.com and couchsurfing.org, turn homeowners — or even apartment renters — into occasional innkeepers.
Los Angeles' "transient occupancy" ordinance, adopted years before the Internet began transforming commerce, aimed to keep hotels and boarding houses out of residential areas. The point was to preserve the character and stability of neighborhoods — a valid goal. New York City has a similar law, and Airbnb opponents have persuaded a judge there to declare the rentals illegal (although the ban has been ineffective).
But the new home-sharing apps offer clear benefits that city officials shouldn't ignore. And the rentals don't necessarily have the same negative impact on neighborhoods as a boarding house or bed-and-breakfast would. A homeowner who rents out her house while she's away or who takes in the occasional weekend vacationer may not impose any burden at all on her neighbors, while an absentee landlord who rents rooms to an ever-changing series of lodgers probably would. Similarly, renting out a spare bedroom through Airbnb isn't a threat to L.A.'s strained housing supply or occupancy tax revenue, but converting a six-unit building into short-term rentals is.
City building and safety officials may be content to address Airbnb on a complaint-by-complaint basis, which would crack down on the users who are most disruptive to their neighborhoods. For the long term, though, the City Council should try to make room in its ordinances for non-intrusive uses of Airbnb and its competitors. As the variety of emerging online platforms illustrates, the council can't hope to wall off residential neighborhoods from commercial activity, nor should it. Instead, it should focus on the actual effects that users of these apps have on neighborhoods so that it can guard the public against nuisances, not new ways of doing business.
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