Dana Damewood, AP
A photo provided by home-sharing service Airbnb

LOS ANGELES — The last time he advertised one of his apartments, longtime Los Angeles landlord Andre LaFlamme got a request he’d never seen before.

A man wanted to rent LaFlamme’s 245-square-foot bachelor unit with hardwood floors for $875 a month, then list it himself on Airbnb.

“Thanks but no thanks,” LaFlamme told the prospective tenant. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

But he understood why: More money might be made renting to tourists a few days at a time than to a local for 12 months or more.

As short-term rental websites such as Airbnb explode in popularity in Southern California, a growing number of homeowners and landlords are caving to the economics. A study released last week by Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a labor-backed advocacy group, estimates that more than 7,000 houses and apartments have been taken off the rental market in metro Los Angeles for use as short-term rentals. In parts of tourist-friendly neighborhoods such as Venice and Hollywood, Airbnb listings account for 4 percent or more of all housing units, according to a Times analysis of data from Airbnb’s website.

That’s worsening a housing shortage that already makes Los Angeles one of the least affordable places to rent in the country.

“In places where vacancy is already limited and rents are already squeezing people out, this is exacerbating the problem,” said Roy Samaan, a policy analyst who wrote the alliance’s report. “There aren’t 1,000 units to give in Venice or Hollywood.”

Fast-growing Airbnb and others like it say they help cash-strapped Angelenos earn a little extra money. Airbnb estimates that 82 percent of its 4,500 LA hosts are “primary residents” of the homes they list, and that nearly half use the proceeds to help pay their rent or mortgage. And the effect on the broader housing market is so small that it’s all but irrelevant, said Tom Davidoff, a housing economist at the University of British Columbia whom Airbnb hired to study its impact.

“Over the lifetime of a lease, rents maybe go up 1.5 percent,” he said. “That’s peanuts relative to the increases we’ve seen in housing costs in a lot of places.”

But there are growing signs of professionalization of the short-term rental world, from property-manager middlemen like the one who emailed LaFlamme to Airbnb “hosts” who list dozens of properties on the site. The Los Angeles Alliance study estimates that 35 percent of Airbnb revenue in Southern California comes from people who list more than one unit.

“I don’t think anyone would begrudge someone renting out a spare bedroom,” Samaan said. “But there’s a whole cottage industry that’s springing up around this.”

City Council members Mike Bonin and Herb Wesson want to study how these rentals have affected the city. No regulations have been drafted, and Bonin said the council would seek extensive community input. Current rules bar short-term rentals in many residential areas of the city, but critics say they’re rarely enforced.

As city officials craft new ones, they’ll certainly be hearing from Airbnb and its allies. Last year, the company spent more than $100,000 lobbying City Hall and released a study touting its economic impact in LA — more than $200 million in spending by guests, supporting an estimated 2,600 jobs. A group representing short-term rental hosts has made the rounds of City Council offices as well.

This industry “needs to be regulated and regulated the right way,” said Sebastian de Kleer, co-founder of the Los Angeles Short Term Rental Alliance and owner of a Venice-based vacation rental company. “For a lot of people, this is a very new issue.”

A new law of some sort is the goal at City Hall. New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have crafted regulations to govern taxes, zoning and length of stay in short-term rentals, and Airbnb says it’s glad to help in that process here.

“It’s time for all of us to work together on some sensible solutions that let people share the home in which they live and contribute to their community,” spokesman Christopher Nulty said in a statement.

Will Youngblood, the man who emailed LaFlamme about managing his apartment, says he’d also appreciate clearer rules and an easier way to pay occupancy taxes.

Youngblood runs five Airbnb apartments, mostly in Hollywood. A former celebrity assistant, he’s been doing this for two years; it’s a full-time job. Most of Youngblood’s clients own their homes but travel a lot or live elsewhere. One, he rents and lists full time. He’s been looking around for another.

“I’m honest about what I do,” he said. “Some (landlords) are like, ‘That’s insane. No way.’ Other people say, ‘We’d love that.’”

If the city decides it doesn’t like what he’s doing, Youngblood said, he’ll go do something else. But for now, he said, it’s a good way to make some cash and meet interesting people.

But he won’t meet LaFlamme. The longtime landlord concedes he “might be old-fashioned,” but he just doesn’t like the idea of strangers traipsing through his apartments. He prefers good, long-term tenants, and in LA’s red-hot rental market he has no problem finding them.

“I almost find it painful to rent things these days,” he said. “There’s so much demand and so many people who are qualified and nice people who I have to turn away.”

For that apartment, LaFlamme said, he found a tenant in less than 24 hours.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

©2015 Los Angeles Times

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