A campaign fundraiser held last fall for Honolulu City Councilman Ikaika Anderson was hosted by vacation rental platform giant Airbnb at its downtown San Francisco headquarters.
Anderson said he’s never supported Airbnb’s position on vacation rental bills, and insists that the fundraiser won’t affect his votes when two significant vacation rental bills come up for final reading before the City Council at 10 a.m. today.
In recent weeks both opponents and supporters in the highly charged vacation rental debate have accused each other of trying to buy influence on the nine-member Council.
A Honolulu Star-Advertiser review of campaign finance records over the last 2-1/2 years shows that Council members have received contributions both from major donors who support and would benefit from the bills, and from heavy hitters who oppose and would be negatively affected.
Opponents of more vacation rentals can point to the Anderson fundraiser as well as campaign contributions from an Airbnb-backed political action committee and its allies to a majority of the nine-member Council as attempts to influence the vote.
Proponents of permitting more hosted (bed-and-breakfast) and whole-home (transient vacation unit) rentals can point to contributions to Council members from hoteliers that would benefit from stricter regulations on vacation rentals.
But they can also note that Councilman Tommy Waters, who beat incumbent Trevor Ozawa in April in a court-ordered do-over election, benefited from union political action committee AiKea Unite Here doling out more than $150,000 in campaign ads that supported Waters or opposed Ozawa.
Up for final votes today are Bill 85 (2018) and Bill 89 (2018), both of which are opposed by online platforms Airbnb and Expedia, and individual vacation rental operators who argue that stiffer regulations and not allowing new permits for home rentals would be detrimental to the industry and have dire affects on Oahu’s economy as well.
Bill 85 would impose higher fines for illegal units and provide new enforcement tools to the Department of Planning and Permitting. Bill 89 would allow permits to be issued for up to about 1,715 additional bed-and-breakfast establishments, but no permits would be issued for vacation rental homes (transient vacation units, or TVUs). The city stopped issuing permits for short-term vacation rental homes in 1989.
Airbnb wants the city to issue permits for more vacation home rentals of less than 30 days.
Two weeks after the fundraiser, Anderson introduced Bill 88 (2018) to allow permits only if the property owners are entitled to home exemptions because they live in their homes. The bill was one of four vacation rental bills shelved in the Planning Committee in December, while Bills 85 (2018) and 89 (2018) were approved.
“That’s not what Airbnb wants,” Anderson said. “That’s not what Expedia wants. Too bad.”
He said he would also consider a limited number of whole-home rentals, but only for those local families who have held their properties for several generations. “By the legislation I’ve introduced … I haven’t been much help to these folks,” Anderson said.
Airbnb declined to respond to specific questions about the November event but issued a statement.
“This event was an opportunity for members of the San Francisco business community to meet Councilmember Anderson and learn about Hawaii’s growing economy,” the statement said. “We held the event at our offices because it was convenient and it was supported by a diverse group of Bay Area organizations in business and technology.”
The Committee to Expand the Middle Class, Supported by Airbnb Inc., has contributed to the campaigns of six of the nine current Council members. Anderson has received $4,000, the maximum allowed during a campaign cycle.
Hawaii campaign financing laws say anything of value given to a candidate must be reported as a campaign contribution.
An Airbnb spokesman said the space used for the Anderson fundraiser is simply part of the company’s office space and is not leased or rented out, and so its use as a campaign venue has no monetary value.
Since June 2017 the Committee to Expand the Middle Class also has contributed to the campaign committees of Council members Carol Fukunaga ($4,000), Ann Kobayashi (2,500), Kymberly Pine ($3,500) and Heidi Tsuneyoshi ($2,000). Tsuneyoshi’s campaign returned the money.
The political action committee also contributed $2,500 to the campaign of former Councilman Trevor Ozawa during his 2018 run, and then an additional $4,000 during this year’s special election campaign.
Executives with Capitol Consultants of Hawaii, among Hawaii’s most powerful lobbying firms, have been lobbying on behalf of Airbnb. Headed by President Bruce Coppa and founder G.A. “Red” Morris, the group has donated to all current Council members except Kobayashi and Tsuneyoshi.
But vacation rental proponents argue that all pales in comparison with the $152,218 that the AiKea PAC spent on a media blitz that praises Waters and disses Ozawa.
The PAC is funded by Unite Here Tip, Local 5’s New York-based parent organization, as well as Ironworkers for Better Government and the Bricklayers Local 1 Political Action Committee. Federal campaign law allows a so-called super PAC to spend as much as it can to support or oppose a campaign so long as it does not coordinate with a campaign and does not contribute directly to a candidate.
A number of major hotel chains have also given money to Council members’ campaigns since the beginning of 2017.
The Outrigger Hotels PAC has given to Anderson ($2,000), Brandon Elefante ($2,000), Fukunaga ($1,900), Kobayashi ($2,800), Joey Manahan (2,000), Ron Menor ($1,000), Pine ($2,000), and Tsuneyoshi ($1,000). The PAC also gave Ozawa $3,000 while Outrigger Hotels Hawaii gave Waters ($1,000).
Park Hotels and Resorts or Park Intermediate Holdings, both affiliates of Hilton Hotels and Resorts, gave to Anderson ($4,000), Elefante ($4,000), Fukunaga ($4,000), Kobayashi ($4,000), Manahan ($4,000), Menor ($4,000), Ozawa ($4,000) and Pine ($4,000) but not to Tsuneyoshi and Waters.
Benchmark Hospitality, affiliated with Turtle Bay Resort, gave to Anderson ($500), Elefante ($500), Ozawa ($500), Pine ($500) and Tsuneyoshi ($500).
All three have supported legislation regulating vacation rentals but also lobbied unsuccessfully to fight Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s hike in hotel-resort property tax rates.
The Resort Group, the company that’s developing Ko Olina Resort, has been quiet publicly during the vacation rental discussion. But it would also benefit from stricter regulations. Several Ko Olina executives, headed by developer Jeff Stone, have contributed to Anderson, Manahan, Ozawa, Pine and Tsuneyoshi.