Airbnb backs a campaign to build homeless housing in L.A. with a $100,000 donation

The home-sharing company that has been accused of helping to take thousands of units out of the tight Los Angeles rental market has become a major contributor to the campaign to build new homeless housing.

A committee funded largely by Airbnb has donated $100,000 to promote Proposition HHH, the Los Angeles city measure that would raise tax dollars to help build 10,000 units for the chronically homeless.

The contribution comes as a proposed ordinance to regulate short-term rentals is working its way to the City Council. The measure, approved in June by the Los Angeles Planning Commission, would limit short-term rentals to 180 days per year, exclude rent-controlled units and impose a tax on rentals.

Airbnb welcomes being regulated but is not endorsing all the terms of the proposal as is, said spokesman Christopher Nully. 

“We think they are a good step in the right direction,” Nully said. 

Opponents say they believe the company is working behind the scenes to water it down.

“They’re hedging all bets,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the tenant advocacy group Coalition for Economic Survival. “Clearly they’re concerned about the rent-controlled units.”

The home-sharing firm’s donation to the “Yes on Proposition HHH — End Homelessness In L.A.” committee is exceeded only by $450,000 in contributions from the California Community Foundation to Proposition HHH. The measure also is backed by labor unions, nonprofit developers and homeless advocates.

Airbnb’s business model has been under attack in Los Angeles and other cities from critics who say it contributes to rent inflation and homelessness. San Francisco-based Airbnb matches customers from around the world to people who want to offer a room, an apartment or a whole house for short-term rental.

Critics say the company encourages landlords to convert rental units into de facto hotel rooms. City Atty. Mike Feuer has filed a civil complaint against one Venice landlord, alleging he evicted tenants to convert their units into short-term rentals.

“We have seen real evidence that landlords are converting affordable housing into short-term rentals all over the city,” said Judith Goldman, a co-founder of the group Keep Neighborhoods First.

Supporters say the service allows many Los Angeles residents to make extra money from unused rooms, often helping them avoid foreclosure or eviction.

Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, one of the campaign’s co-sponsors, said Airbnb was invited to an event where the chamber sought donations to Proposition HHH.

Ruben Gonzalez, the chamber’s senior advisor for strategic affairs, said all participants were asked to give in that range.

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“They made the choice that they had the ability to do it,” Gonzalez said.

The contribution — four donations of $25,000 — came from the Committee to Expand the Middle Class, according to the Los Angeles Ethics Commission website. The California secretary of state’s website lists Airbnb as the larger of the committee’s two contributors. The other is Y Combinator, the venture capital firm that funded Airbnb.

Nully, the Airbnb spokesman, said the contribution is consistent with the company’s efforts in other cities where it operates to be a “proactive player” in supporting affordable housing and homeless programs.

“We are more than willing to work with the city on an approach to regulation that works for them, that protects the privacy of our hosts, that protects the housing stock in Los Angeles and that continues to allow home sharing to flourish.” Nully said.

State campaign finance records show that Airbnb has made more than $560,000 in political donations this year, primarily in the Bay Area. It has given to ballot measures, elected officials and several Democratic central committees.

In Los Angeles, it has given $25,000 to county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, $1,400 to Mayor Eric Garcetti and $700 each to seven City Council members.

The Proposition HHH committee has raised more than $1 million, including contributions of $50,000 each from philanthropist Eli Broad, Omni Contracting, Inc. and Scott Minerd, a managing partner of Guggenheim Partners, and several $25,000 contributions from real estate firms and labor unions.

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