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Housing and Homelessness

LA Has Rules For Airbnb And Vrbo Listings — But Are They Enforced?

An open laptop computer perched on a stands displays the Airbnb logo on its screen. Two people, shown out of focus, are in the background working on a Mac laptop.
The logo of online lodging service Airbnb is displayed on a computer screen in the Airbnb offices in Paris on April 21, 2015.
((Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images))
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People listing vacation rentals on websites such as Airbnb and Vrbo in the city of Los Angeles are supposed to follow a few clear-cut rules: They can only rent out their primary home. They can’t list an apartment subject to the city’s rent control law. And they must register with the city and display their registration number in every ad.

L.A. officials say they’ve been enforcing these rules since November 2019. But a recent study found widespread signs that the city’s home sharing ordinance is being routinely violated — and lack of enforcement may be leading to more hosts breaking the law.

Here’s a breakdown of how legal listings work in L.A., and what’s known about how the law is — and isn’t — being enforced.

For more on this topic, listen to last week’s KPCC AirTalk segment, which featured the study’s author, McGill University urban planning professor David Wachsmuth, and a representative from Airbnb, public policy manager Andrew Kalloch.

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How Do I Know If I’m Staying In An Illegal Vacation Rental?

That can be tough. When looking for a compliant listing in the city of L.A., the first step you can take is to check the listing for a license number provided by the city.

However, just because a listing shows a license number doesn’t necessarily mean it’s following the rules. The McGill study found that 26.5% of listings on Airbnb and Vrbo that posted a license number were using an expired license, or a number that didn’t exist in the city’s database of valid registrations.

Airbnb representatives said they regularly share listings data with the city, allowing the city to flag listings with invalid license numbers for removal.

“When the city tells us a registration is invalid or has been denied, we deactivate the listing or block it from hosting short-term stays,” said an Airbnb spokesperson via email.

But even hosts with valid license numbers sometimes seemed to skirt the law, according to the McGill study, in many cases by booking rentals more than 120 days per year without permission from the city for “extended” home-sharing.

All of this means that it can be tricky for travelers to be certain that the vacation rental they’re booking in L.A. complies with city rules.

Does Airbnb Confirm Hosts Follow Local Laws Before Listings Go Live?

Airbnb representatives said hosts must input a license number, or claim an exemption from city regulations, before their listings can be posted online. But whether Airbnb takes any steps to verify those numbers are legit before listings go live remains unclear.

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Airbnb’s public policy manager was pressed on this issue several times on KPCC’s AirTalk, and did not answer the question directly.

“What our system does is facilitate data sharing with the City of Los Angeles,” said Airbnb’s Kalloch, in response to questions from AirTalk host Larry Mantle. “It's incumbent upon the city to provide us with information when they have knowledge that a permit has expired or a permit might be a fake number. And again, we take appropriate steps when that happens.”

An Airbnb spokesperson told LAist the information Airbnb shares with the city allows city officials to flag listings for removal if they appear to be non-compliant.

The spokesperson said the information sharing platform “cross-checks host information beyond the registration number, including address number and number of nights a listing has been booked on the platform, which allows the city to determine if registration has lapsed/is invalid and alert Airbnb.”

Does Anything Stop Hosts From Uploading Fake License Numbers?

During the AirTalk segment, Airbnb wouldn't say.

One listener, Laura in Woodland Hills, told AirTalk that she hosts vacation rentals, and in her experience, Airbnb appears to allow hosts to upload fake license numbers in their listings.

When asked to respond to that claim, Kalloch with Airbnb said the company requires hosts to input a license number, and Airbnb can then tell the city which numbers have been entered.

“If the city wants to tell us then that there's a registration number that is fake or that they think is expired, they're certainly able to do that,” Kalloch said.

Vrbo recently agreed to pay $150,000 and provide ongoing compliance reports to the city in order to settle a lawsuit brought by L.A.’s city attorney.

How Does The City Respond To Complaints About Illegal Listings?

Not well, according to the recent McGill study. It found the city missed out on about $300 million in fines last year due to apparent violations.

A spokesperson for the city’s Planning Department said that while the department administers the registration program and receives complaints, enforcement duties including citations and fines are handled by the Housing Department and the Department of Building and Safety.

“The city has contracted with Host Compliance [a privately-held outside company] to monitor short-term rental listings and identify those that are not registered,” they said. “Once identified, the property owners of unregistered units are sent a warning letter. If the listing remains after 14 days, the listing is put in queue for citation.”

LAist also reached out to the city’s Housing Department and Building and Safety Department. We’ll update this story if we receive answers from those departments.

How Many Complaints Has The City Received?

The McGill study found that the city received 4,370 complaints about short-term rentals between July 2019 and August 2022. Common complaint topics included excessive noise, garbage and criminal activity.

Complaints spiked during the pandemic and were concentrated in neighborhoods such as Venice, Downtown L.A. and the Hollywood Hills.

If The City Is Slow To Respond, Can Neighbors Go Directly To The Platforms With Complaints?

Airtalk listeners said in their experience, contacting companies such as Airbnb can also be a dead-end. One Airtalk listener, Sal in Los Angeles, wrote in to say that he has contacted both the city and Airbnb about a short-term vacation rental next to his home that he suspects is illegal.

“I've reported this to Airbnb, and they have done nothing,” Sal said.

Kalloch, the Airbnb policy manager, said in response, “Our job is to help the city of Los Angeles enforce its law … You wouldn't expect General Motors to write a speeding ticket. And so we are not the ones doing the enforcement. We are the ones facilitating enforcement by the city.”

An Airbnb spokesperson told LAist via email, “We are in regular contact with the city and work to address complaints received from residents. Neighbors can submit complaints using our Neighborhood tool.” They also noted that many other vacation rental platforms exist aside from Airbnb, meaning that some illegal listings may need to be addressed by different platforms.

Why Isn’t The City Doing More To Enforce Its Own Law?

A spokesperson for the city’s Planning Department told LAist the department doesn’t have enough resources to adequately run the home-sharing program.

They said, “The day-to-day operation of the City Planning’s Home-Sharing work program is currently operating with 12 dedicated staff members. The program continues to be under-resourced.”

It remains unclear exactly how many illegal listings have been removed from short-term rental platforms due to city enforcement, and what steps officials are taking in response to calls from city councilmembers who want to see tougher enforcement.

But soon, the departments involved in enforcement could have to pull back the curtain on their efforts. Earlier this month, City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield introduced a motion calling on the relevant departments to:

“... report within 60 days on the results and accuracy of the STR study from McGill University, provide a status report on the Home-Sharing program in Los Angeles, and a specific action plan to cure any problems that are confirmed or revealed.”

Blumenfield isn’t the only one wanting answers about the city’s apparent lack of enforcement. Incoming Councilmembers Hugo Soto-Martinez and Eunisses Hernandez both tweeted LAist’s story about the McGill study, calling for stronger enforcement.

Airbnb’s Kalloch said the company is able and willing to work with the city on changes to enforcement.

“If there are gaps, and if there are things that the city wants to do differently, we are absolutely at the table,” he said.

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