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Cities Raid Private Homes and Trample on Property Rights

September 9, 2019

September 9, 2019
By Christina Sandefur

Cities across the United States are raiding private residences to enforce laws restricting Americans’ right to share their homes on websites like Airbnb and HomeAway—and taxpayers are paying the price.

On the heels of imposing crushing fines (up to $10,000 a day)on short-term rentals across Oahu, Honolulu officials are going even further in their attempts to squash people’s property rights. The city is hiring an entire inspection staff to help enforce the island’s strict anti-home-sharing laws. The city already employs 17 permanent property inspectors, but it plans to hire another six just to uncover illegal short-term rentals.

Enforcing prohibitions or restrictions on home-sharing inevitably offends privacy rights, in part because if no nuisance is occurring, determining whether an occupant is a homeowner or a guest often requires officials to invade a person’s private home.

That’s the tactic officials in Miami Beach have resorted to, sending uniformed enforcement officers armed with bodycams out into the night to barge in on tourists suspected of illegally renting private homes. And in Chicago, home-sharers are required to open their homes to city inspectors “at any time and in any manner,” without a warrant or even a reason, and regardless of whether guests are even present in the home. The Goldwater Institute is challenging Chicago’s rule in court because forcing homeowners to waive their privacy rights in exchange for permission to allow overnight guests in their homes violates the state and U.S. constitutions. As more cities follow suit, more lawsuits are sure to follow.

Raiding private residences to crack down on home-sharing not only intrudes on people’s privacy rights; ironically, it can actually undermine a city’s ability to tackle real nuisances. Indeed, the Nashville police department balked at having to enforce anti-home-sharing laws against peaceful renters, because it prevents them from fulfilling the most important parts of their job. Police better serve the community by “proactively working to deter criminal activity,” and “respond[ing] to quality of life issues such as vehicles blocking rights of way and noise complaints,” not snooping on unproblematic guests.

At the end of the day, it’s the taxpayers who foot the bill for these misguided priorities. Santa Monica, California, spent nearly half a million dollars creating a full-time task force to enforce its ban on home-sharing—only to catch a single homeowner. There were no accusations that his properties were poorly maintained or that guests had been cheated.

Honolulu’s new inspection team will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first year alone—not to mention the toll on the local economy (and people’s privacy and property rights). And for what? To catch people who are renting responsibly? If cities have to raid homes like gangbusters just to determine whether people are breaking the law, perhaps officials should rethink their regulations and refocus their efforts (and taxpayer dollars) on putting a stop to genuine bad actors.

Christina Sandefur is Executive Vice President of the Goldwater Institute.



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