File photo by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu: A tourist snaps photos of Balmy Alley's famous murals.

For the last four years, Jessica H., a community mental health worker who lives near San Francisco General Hospital, has used Airbnb to rent out rooms to visiting tourists in her Mission District home.

As a longtime San Francisco resident, she prides herself on her insider knowledge, sending people to Vermont Street instead of the much-hyped Lombard Street, or Corona Heights instead of the crowded Twin Peaks. Her guests travel from as far as Australia and as close as Cleveland, she explained, and often come bearing presents.

“We have people bring us gifts all the time: a mug, chocolates or tea from their country,” Jessica said. “It’s really a cultural exchange.”

These exchanges, according to Airbnb, generated $8.3 million from Airbnb guests in the Mission District between April 2013 to March 2014 and some $56 million citywide from June 2011 to May 2012.

That alone, Jessica said, should win support for a proposal now being considered by the Planning Commission to legalize short-term rentals. While all of the details have yet to be worked out, the commission recently voted 4 to 2 to go forward with allowing tenants and homeowners to rent out rooms.

“The block that we live in—there’s been shootings, murders, drug dealing that’s constant,” Jessica said. “But we have responsible, interesting people who are giving back to the community who are buying things locally. They want to know about all the boutiques. They want to go to Aquarius Records and they love all the local stuff.”

Mission Local spoke with two Airbnb hosts in the Mission and two in the Castro. A San Francisco Chronicle study in June showed that the Mission had 681 listings—the most of any neighborhood in the city. The Castro tied for fourth place with Nob Hill at 213 listings.

The study also showed that hosts like Jessica and the others that Mission Local spoke with are in the minority. “Two-thirds” of the Airbnb listings in San Francisco were whole units or entire homes, according to the Chronicle’s analysis. For its part, Airbnb has not provided the city with any data. In New York, however, the Attorney General recently won a court case demanding that the short-term rental service turn over its data.

It is Airbnb’s lack of transparency in its data that made some of the Planning Commission members skeptical of the city’s ability to enforce restrictions. One of those restrictions would require that the host actually live in the unit, which would rule out the majority of places that are now rented out as short-term rentals.

For those who would remain legal, however, the hosts said they were anxious for the city to make short-term rentals legal and offered a sense of their experience. They agreed that San Francisco suffers from a housing shortage and rising hotel accommodation costs, and added the caveat that converting entire apartment buildings to vacation rentals and evicting longtime tenants was as Jessica said, “morally wrong.”

“We’re so happy to be meeting these amazing travelers,” said Jessica, whose most recent guests include a mother-and-daughter duo in their late 60s and 80s driving cross-country in an RV. “People come to you and they look at you like you’re an expert. You get to be a kind of a hero. For me, it’s been nothing but positive.”

The four Airbnb hosts are all homeowners and stress that they’re simply “regular people who share our homes,” according to Mitch L., a driver and Airbnb host who lives in the Castro. He and his wife, Barbara L., have developed relationships with former guests that have lasted long after their stays.

“We’ve had people stay for a month and actually find an apartment right next door to us,” said Barbara, who works as a tour guide and rents out a room in the house she grew up in. “They were from Israel and when they had a baby, the dads came and stayed with us [through Airbnb] because the moms just had to be near the baby, of course.”

Many of their guests visit for extended periods of time because they want to experience San Francisco as much as they can, explain Mitch and Barbara. Another couple from Ireland who stayed with them for 10 days insisted on biking everywhere, despite being forewarned of the city’s infamously steep hills.

“They agreed it was crazy after they rode the bikes,” Mitch said.

“They want to see what real life is like and not a sterile hotel,” he added. “They want to have a real life experience in the neighborhoods.”

Allowing Longtime Residents to Stay

For Jessica, Airbnb has made staying in the city possible.

On average, home-sharers in San Francisco pocket $4,000 per year by renting out their spare bedrooms and 82 percent use the extra income to pay their mortgage or property taxes, according to Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas.

Saddled with student debt, Jessica mostly uses the money she earns through Airbnb to pay off loans and repair her home. The average rental in the Mission goes for $167 a night, according to the Chronicle investigation.

“It costs $15,000 to paint your house. To change a window is $2,000,” she said. “It’s a lot of money and people don’t realize how expensive it is to take care of these Victorians with the floors, the light fixtures and the windows.”

Likewise, Barbara is the last of her high school friends who still live in the city. The money she earns as an Airbnb host helps pay for much-needed fixes to her childhood home.

“Since my dad converted it in the sixties, nothing’s been done,” Barbara said. “There’s no way we could rent out our place and do everything that we need to do because we would constantly be in the tenant’s place. I don’t feel like I’m taking a spot off the rental market because honestly, I would never rent it.”

A Path Towards Legalization

Jan D., a retiree who has rented rooms out of her condo in what she called “Bi-Rite territory” near Dolores Park for two years said she looks forward to the city legalizing the process.

“What we want is to not be underground or feel ashamed in any way, shape, or form for what we’re doing that helps us stay in this city we love,” Jan said. “The bad actors on both the guest and the host side are anomalies, by and large.”

Critics have blamed home-sharing for the lack-of-affordable-housing-problem in San Francisco, but Mitch, who has been hosting for a year, doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s not a black and white issue,” Mitch said. “It’s not just developers taking over and changing the face of the neighborhood. The reason that housing is so expensive in San Francisco is not because of vacation rental homes or short-term rentals. It has a lot more to do with really bad public policy that’s been in place for 30 plus years.”

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  1. So, to sum up this fluff piece, Air b’n’b-ers think it’s just fine when THEY rent out their homes, but don’t approve of big ol’ meanie landlords doing it, too…And they are “sharing” their space, while hotels are renting rooms out for the night. Hmmm, this sounds like propaganda, not news.

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    1. I don’t draw any such distinction myself. Some of us rent out rooms and some rent out entire homes. Sometimes that is temporary or occasional, e.g. when we are out of town. While some are more permanent arrangements, say when we have a spare room or home.

      I contend they are all valid forms of home sharing.

      I can see a problem where tenants are evicted and then their home permanently rented out short-term. But then that is already illegal as things like Ellis and OMI do not allow rapid re-lets.

      The real issue here is that the city has made long-term lets unattractive, and so owners turn to short-term lets as an understandable response. This is how rent control kills rental housing wherever it is employed.

      In that context, Airbnb is irrelevant. I was doing short-term lets 15 years ago via CraigsList, and that is still my preferred approach.

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  2. The prevalence of Mission AirBnB listings could also be because there are no (tourist) hotels. There’s the Travelodge at Market and Valencia, there’s the Parker Guest House on Church at 18th, and there’s the Inn SF on South Van Ness at 20th. For tourists who want to stay in the neighborhood, or for folks visiting family members who live here, it’s one of those or stay miles away downtown. Technically, you could also stay in a “tourist” room at one of the local SROs, but AirBnB sounds a lot nicer to a lot of folks.

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      1. If it’s all about the experience then why do you let folks stay free? I’m assuming you are reporting these profits to CA and IRS tax agencies.

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        1. The hosts interviewed didn’t say it was ONLY about the experience. They said that the experience is very pleasant and educational.

          I’ve done short-term lets for many years and agree with the hosts here that the guests and visitors are almost always delightful, interesting and pleasant people. This certainly adds to the experience of being a host.

          But of course we do it for the money. We’re not running a charity and our costs are real enough.

          I don’t really understand the distinction between renting out a room and renting out an entire home. Either way the space is unused and has value. Everyone gains and nobody loses.

          The critics seem to think that if we did not Airbnb, that we would instead rent out these rooms and homes long-term and cheaply.

          We would not.

          Assuming Chiu’s bill passes i have no yet decided whether to register or not. The details will be keys in assessing the pro’s and con’s of being registered.

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