Rent a bunk bed for $1,200 a month? Idea sparks pushback from San Francisco officials

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SAN FRANCISCO — There are cities where $1,200 a month will buy you a bedroom with a door. In San Francisco, it gets you a bunk bed.

That’s PodShare — the latest housing hack born from the state’s shortage of affordable homes. The Los Angeles-based startup recently opened its first Bay Area location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood and already is causing a stir among community members and city officials, who are investigating whether the company is violating the city’s short-term rental and occupancy rules.

“We believe that you only really need a small space to yourself to sleep, relax and store your belongings. The rest of our space … is shared,” the company’s website explains. PodShare already operates five Southern California bunk bed communities.

But a city official said the PodShare property appears to violate San Francisco city ordinances and codes, and the city has received multiple complaints about the startup. PodShare already has tweaked its plans at the city’s behest but will need to do more before it is fully compliant.

PodShare renters sleep stacked in custom bunk beds set up in one large room, with no doors between them. Each unpainted, wooden bed, or “pod,” includes a personal television, nightlight, outlets and storage space, and renters share a communal kitchen and lounge space. For those digs in San Francisco, the PodShare website says a renter pays $60 a night, $350 a week or $1,500 a month. But founder Elvina Beck said the monthly price is actually $1,200.

“We’re not replacing apartment buildings,” she wrote in an email to this news organization, “but rather offering a reliable brand to stay with when first moving to the city without a job or any friends.”

The San Francisco location opened May 15 with six beds, Beck said.

So far, there are three reviews of the property on Airbnb. One complained the shower was cold and there was residue on the towels, but another reviewer called it “perfect for my minimalist needs.”

The unique, hostel-like setup is making its Bay Area debut at a time when a shortage of available homes here has driven rent prices to staggering heights and forced many residents to either move out or seek creative, and sometimes desperate, solutions. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco was $2,470 last month, according to Apartment List. As a result, co-living has become an increasingly popular option for renters hoping to cut costs. The San Jose City Council earlier this year voted to allow co-living spaces, prompted by Starcity, which plans to build an 800-unit building in downtown San Jose where residents will sleep in small bedrooms and share common space. Starcity already operates a handful of co-living communities in San Francisco.

Even in co-living housing models, residents typically have their own private bedroom with a door — not bunk beds shared with strangers. But it’s not the bunk beds that are giving San Francisco officials pause. The city learned about PodShare’s new San Francisco house at the end of last month, when several community members filed complaints. The first problem was that the startup offered beds for $60 a night — a violation of the city’s short-term rental policy, which bans rentals of fewer than 30 days unless the landlord lives in the home (which Beck doesn’t appear to, according to Omar Masry, senior analyst with San Francisco’s Office of Short Term Rentals).

Masry told Beck about the violation, and she agreed to cancel pending short-term reservations and change her Airbnb listing, he said. Now the San Francisco PodShare listing on Airbnb specifies that stays must be for 30 days or more.

That’s not the end of PodShare’s problems. The startup doesn’t have permission from the city to operate group housing, Masry said. But unlike in some areas of San Francisco, PodShare’s neighborhood is zoned to allow group housing, meaning Beck potentially could apply for that designation.

“There’s a possible path to legalize either all or some of her business model,” Masry said.

To do that, Beck also would need to comply with the city’s building and fire codes — particularly making sure there was a safe way for occupants to exit in the event of an emergency.

“It seems like she kind of jumped the gun,” Masry said.

Beck agreed that she and her team “need to go through the process” of getting approved for group housing.

The city’s building department inspected the property Friday and found “possible violations of the building code,” according to a city report. The next step is to issue a notice of violation.

Meanwhile, PodShare is sparking worry from some community members.

“We spent a couple of years reining in Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway and the many, many other outfits cannibalizing scarce housing for tourist accommodations,” Dale Carlson, co-founder of ShareBetter SF, a group critical of home-sharing platforms, wrote in an email. “We don’t want (another to) come to town and ignore the rules put in place to protect housing opportunities for working families and the small neighborhood businesses that meet their needs.”

But Beck defended PodShare as a helpful housing option. She’s considering expanding her Bay Area footprint and has been in touch with San Francisco officials about setting up a bunk bed community of 20 beds in a property on Lombard Street. The property currently is being used as a karate studio.

“The people and the city want more housing right?” Beck wrote in an email. “No one said it has to be rooms.”

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