Three small apartment buildings of different sizes and styles on a city street.
Sites like Airbnb and Vrbo offer flexibility to visitors and homeowners but face criticism for removing units from the rental market. Credit: Florence Middleton

If you log onto popular short-term rental sites like Airbnb and Vrbo and search for accommodations in Oakland, hundreds of options come up—cottages, condos, private rooms, and entire houses. 

They’re all illegal.

The city administration says there are 2,600 Oakland lodgings listed on Airbnb alone, despite no city policy that permits short-term—under 30-day—rentals. In much of Oakland, “transient habitation,” the rental of a dwelling unit for seven days or less, is expressly prohibited.

The proliferation of short-term rentals starting in the late 2000s raised a number of concerns in Oakland and cities around the world. Critics say the companies that operate the rental platforms, and the landlords who use them, are taking much-needed rental housing off the market, which can drive up prices and reduce options for residents. There’s also little oversight or accountability when safety issues arise. 

“In cities with high housing demand, such as Oakland, there is concern about the potential adverse impacts of [short-term rentals] on long-term housing supply and availability, affordability, and other impacts on our neighborhoods such as safety,” city staff wrote in a recent report.

At the same time, short-term rentals can offer flexibility to visitors beyond the offerings of traditional hotels. They also can provide supplemental income for homeowners, and tax revenue for a city. Although the city says all short-term rentals in Oakland are operating unlawfully, the city does collect taxes from their occupants—the same tax that hotel guests pay. 

However, Oakland never devised a policy clarifying its approach to short-term rentals, even while the market for them expanded enormously over the past 15 years.

In 2016, the Oakland City Council directed staff to gather community input and come up with new regulations for short-term rental businesses and hosts. Seven years later, the city administration is finally putting together a proposal for regulating these sites. The legislation, expected in the spring or summer of 2024, is not available yet, but city materials indicate what might be included. The city will also hold a public workshop early next year to collect input, a city spokesperson said.

Asked why the process has taken many years to complete, spokesperson Jean Walsh said “there were numerous mandates and directives that needed to be prioritized” since 2016.

Hosts could be limited to listing their own house only

Screenshot from Airbnb showing listings of apartments and guest suites in Oakland.
Many Airbnb hosts have multiple units listed in Oakland, while others rent out a room in their house. Credit: Airbnb

City staff met in April this year with housing and labor advocates, as well as companies that operate short-term rentals, to present an early version of the proposal and source feedback.

At the meetings, the city suggested limiting hosts to renting out their permanent residences only—for example, listing their house while on vacation or offering a private room inside of it. Currently, about half of Oakland’s Airbnb hosts operate multiple units within the city, according to Inside Airbnb, a data project analyzing the company’s operations. Advocates supported this approach, according to a city summary of the meetings.

Under this model, each host would be limited to receiving one short-term rental license for one unit, from the city. The idea would be to retain flexibility and income opportunities for homeowners to rent space to visitors without taking an entire apartment or house off of the rental market for permanent Oakland residents. Along similar lines, the city is considering limiting the period of time a property owner can rent out their home or a space in it to 90 nights per year.

“Every room, apartment, or home that’s used as a short-term rental for tourists is one that could otherwise house long-term residents,” said Jeff Levin, senior policy director at East Bay Housing Organizations, which was present at an April meeting. 

“It’s one thing for a homeowner to rent out their house while they are out of town. Where we take issue is the conversion of homes that could be used to house Oaklanders into unregulated mini-hotels,” he told The Oaklandside, saying EBHO and others have been calling on Oakland to regulate short-term rentals for a decade. 

Representatives for UNITE HERE Local 2, a union representing hotel workers, were also at one of the city meetings.

“When landlords convert housing units to short-term rentals, those units are no longer available as housing for Oakland residents, further exacerbating our already-severe housing affordability crisis,” Yulisa Elenes, vice president for the East and North Bay, said in a statement shared with The Oaklandside. “At the same time, it takes away hours from room cleaners at unionized hotels, reducing their income and making it harder for them to qualify for medical and retirement benefits. Our members suffer for both of these reasons—less affordable housing and less work opportunity.”

The groups at the April meeting said companies like Airbnb, Vrbo, and FlipKey should be held responsible for ensuring their hosts follow the law, not leaving enforcement up to city staff. But representatives from the companies told Oakland that it would be difficult for them to confirm that licenses were valid and that hosts weren’t illegally listing additional units on other rental platforms.

Safety concerns arise at unregulated rentals

The city is currently scouting a contractor to help implement the regulations. The contractor would fine-tune the proposal and set up an online licensing system for hosts, then, if the regulations are adopted by the City Council in 2024, the company would start issuing licenses and monitoring listings, and would launch a hotline for neighbors and others to report violations.

The city and others hope that a regulated approach could not only address housing affordability issues but also help reduce hazardous conditions seen at short-term rentals in the past.

One year ago, two teenage brothers, Berkeley High School students Angel and Jazy Sotelo Garcia, were fatally shot at a party that took place at a North Oakland Airbnb. The incident was the most tragic of numerous reported safety issues at short-term rentals throughout Oakland in recent years. In some cases, neighbors have filed repeated complaints with the city to try and shut down problematic sites or hold the rental platforms and individual hosts accountable. 

The new 24-hour hotline, according to city notes, would field “minor, non-health and safety related issues.”

Members of the public can sign up for email updates from the city on the short-term rental regulation process and the upcoming workshop. 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.