A war of words erupted recently between Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and the editor of Charlie Sykes’ website over the regulation of Airbnb.
Airbnb is an increasingly popular San Francisco website where people list their homes for short-term rentals and find similar homes listed by others.
Like the ride-service companies Uber Technology Inc. and Lyft, Airbnb’s “peer to peer” structure is seen by some as a threat to conventional businesses. Concerns have also been raised about public safety issues and lack of regulation concerning Airbnb. For instance, there’s an ongoing debate about whether Airbnb rental providers must comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and religion.
In 2010 the State of New York made it illegal to rent out residential space for fewer than 30 days. Quebec may soon follow suit.
Last year, San Francisco enacted bans on listing multiple homes on Airbnb and allowing hosts to turn private homes into illegal hotels. Critics there accuse Airbnb and other short-term rental sites of worsening the area’s housing shortage by giving property owners a financial motive to convert homes into lodging for out-of-town visitors rather than residents.
Soglin’s concern is over how to tax an industry that’s nearly invisible. Earlier this year, a bill was proposed in the Legislature to gut ordinances regulating such rentals in the state, including one adopted by Madison in 2013. The bill failed to pass, but it remained a threat on March 14, when Soglin announced in a press conference that he was interested in creating a new city position to track down and collect unreported room tax revenues. The City of Madison levies a room tax of 9 percent. Dane County does not levy a room tax.
That idea incensed the political right.
“Soglin is once again defending the status quo against an innovative new way for citizens to make a little extra money on the side,” wrote Kevin Binversie in a column posted in March on RightWisconsin.com, Sykes’ website. “Soglin seems hell-bent on trampling not just on the free market, but his citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights — all in the name of tax collection.”
Soglin replied that Binversie’s column was “clearly the work of some right-wing libertarian.”
Responding again to Soglin, Binversie, who’s RightWisconsin.com’s web editor, posted a column criticizing the mayor at length.
“Soglin believes the captured tax revenue would allow the new position to pay for itself (how wonderful!),” he wrote. “How Madison city government plans on tracking down these locations — Airbnb doesn’t publicly list addresses of rentals, only pictures, since all interactions are done via email — is anyone’s guess.”
He asked, “Will this staffer wander the streets of Madison, going door-to-door trying to match up addresses with pictures from online listings?”
“As San Francisco learned, unregulated use of housing leads to elimination of availability of affordable housing, as properties are purchased by speculators,” Soglin replied. “This also leads to the closing of schools if enrollments continue to decline. The author should go back to defending banks charging $30 for overdrafts and $5 to use an ATM to get our own money.”
“I’m not opposed to regulation,” Binversie told the Gazette. “History has shown us that for cars and cell phones, for example, technology requires government restrictions. It’s a question of whether the city is fighting the free market.”
Stay tuned for the next round.