Agniteszka Pilat has been using Airbnb to rent out rooms in the three-bedroom Mission district apartment she shares with her husband since the company launched in 2007. Pilat is a painter, and, as she put it, "being an artist in San Francisco is hard." With Airbnb, she can supplement her income while still having a place for her recently widowed mother to stay when she visits from Poland.
But it's not just the potential loss of revenue that Pilat was worried about when she joined a couple dozen other home-sharers in front of City Hall Monday afternoon to speak out against a new ballot measure that Pilat fears has the potential to end home sharing in San Francisco if passed in November. When Pilat took her spot on the steps of City Hall, she did so bearing a sign that read, "NO Spying on neighbors!"
The gathering turned out to be a kick-off event for "SF for Everyone," a pro–home sharing campaign so new that it doesn't even have a website yet. Consultants for the group said Airbnb is a "supporter," of the campaign, but a spokesperson for ShareBetter SF — the group that wrote the ballot initiative SF for Everyone opposes —told BuzzFeed News that it's a "wholly owned subsidiary" of the company. Given that Airbnb public affairs manager Chris Nulty will be working with the campaign part-time, it seems clear that the group exists to protect the company's interests in the city.
SF for Everyone claims that the ballot measure, which today met the city's threshold for inclusion on the ballot, with 15,983 of the requisite 9,700 signatures, would make some types of home sharing — for example, the renting of backyard structures with separate entrances typically known as in-law units — illegal. As Airbnb frequently argues,'this would force travelers visiting San Francisco to stay in traditional hotels, which are largely located in central tourist districts. Additionally, Airbnb claims that the measure has the potential to create fissures in the city because it's meant to be applied differently to low-income versus high-income neighborhoods.
But the claim that the measure would result in neighbors spying on each other is a new one, and one undoubtedly intended to grab the attention of those growing weary of the city's public squabble over short-term renting. The measure would effectively allow people to sue neighbors they suspect of illegally renting their homes via digital platforms — which SF for Everyone argues creates economic incentives that will have San Francisco residents turning each other over to the authorities right and left.
"I grew up in Poland, in communism," said Pilat, who heard about the ballot measure and the counter-campaign via a home sharing email list. "I thought, that sounds like where I grew up."
But the supporters of the ballot measure say that Airbnb's refusal to share its data with the city left the government no choice but to encourage neighbors to police themselves. "If anyone turns neighbors into spies or neighbors into snitches, it's Airbnb," said Dale Carlson, spokesperson for ShareBetter SF. "That's the process they wanted." Carlson said the city should brace itself for a million-dollar ad campaign from Airbnb — and its brand-new public arm — in the lead-up to November's vote as the company strives to win the hearts and minds of the people. But he was confident that the tens of thousands of dollars ShareBetter SF has already raised from hotel workers' unions and individuals like former president of the San Francisco Planning Commission Doug Engmann will suffice.
"I think their polling numbers show the same thing that ours do," Carlson said. "People are not happy about the proliferation of Airbnb rentals."
Indeed, this is far from the first time San Franciscans have come head-to-head over Airbnb; it's not even the first time this year. New legislation regarding short-term rentals were passed in February, only to be contested as toothless by elected city officials months later. A month ago, the city's Board of Supervisors hotly debated two competing proposals for how to regulate short-term rentals in the city, only to to ultimately decide to delay the vote until this month. But the outcome of that vote, which will happen next week, would be rendered basically null if the ballot measure passes.
In fact, at least one of the Airbnb hosts who spoke in defense of home-sharing at the rally, Karen Cancino, said she opposes ballot measures altogether because of how difficult they are to overturn. Her compatriots applauded and cheered as she explained why reasoned laws written with care by legislators are a safer bet when compared to hastily compiled but long-lasting ballot measures.
Meanwhile, a toilet paper roll wrapper, presumably escaped from one of the nearby public Porta Pottys, floated lazily through the legs of the assembled crowd. Bill Hoover, owner of a small, local chain of jewelry stores, had taken the podium and was speaking stridently about the importance of supporting small businesses. Not only does Airbnb bring tourists into neighborhoods where they wouldn't normally be spending money, he argued, but it allows them to see a more vibrant, more honest side of the city.
Grinning, he asked the crowd, "How about visiting what the real San Francisco is all about?!"
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O'Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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