- - Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thousands of otherwise law-abiding San Francisco residents face jail time and fines for using their own property. Bay area bureaucrats have stepped into the bedroom with sleeping orders.

Just as smartphone services such as Uber and Lyft have threatened the taxicab industry with competition, another app called Airbnb threatens hoteliers and innkeepers. Airbnb, VRBO and Homeway encourage enterprising homeowners to convert spare bedrooms into cash by welcoming paying visitors from all over the world. The website and smartphone apps coordinate the exchange, allowing vacationers in 192 countries to find a room, a sofa or other place to crash.

Stays in the city where fog crept in on little cat feet are offered in treehouses, castles, mansions and just about anything with four walls and a roof. It’s win-win for everyone, except for the highly regulated hotel industry, which sees the potential for losing customers to less expensive and sometimes more creative alternatives. Americans spend about $160 billion on hotel stays every year, so the industry has dispatched lobbyists to persuade the politicians to do something about the “illegal” competition.

In San Francisco, where Airbnb is headquartered, city officials discovered an ancient city ordinance forbidding residents from subleasing their homes for fewer than 30 days and decided to apply it now. Code enforcers are threatening what they call “micro-preneurs” with $2,700 fines and eviction for renting their property.

Baghdad by the Bay, as the city was once pleased to call itself, ought to be the last place up in arms over allowing visitors to stay in guest bedrooms and empty basements. It wasn’t that many years ago that free-love enthusiasts in San Francisco probably didn’t know half the people who slept in their beds the night before, or who or how many they slept with.

The laissez-faire attitude of the city’s hippie heyday has been replaced by taxing and regulating with gay abandon, and ultimately snuffing anything new, different or oriented to the free market. The city is even considering bribing residents to snitch on neighbors they suspect of using online services to rent extra bedrooms.

San Francisco officials will begin hearing proposals Thursday for new and less onerous guidelines for short-term rentals. One proposal would allow residents to rent accommodations for no more than 180 days a year. City planners, however, want to limit that to 90 days. The bureaucrats want Airbnb to collect a hotel tax. That’s an improvement over banning all short-term rentals, but it still seems not quite cricket for the city council to peep into spare bedrooms.

Better than a 90-day limit, or even a 180-day limit, would be no limit at all. If a law-abiding property owner wants to allow strangers to pay to sleep in his home, that’s his business. The government should butt out.

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