This summer, in a somewhat election year, a San Francisco ballot proposition quickly went from local regulatory issue to national controversy. Airbnb ultimately won — big time — defeating a measure that would have introduced strict new regulations on short-term renting in the city. As the dust in the city settles, San Francisco and the $25 billion dollar company that was started here are embarking on a new journey together — and Airbnb is launching a global campaign for hearts and minds.
The saga of Airbnb's battle for San Francisco was a compelling one. In one corner: longtime residents of a vibrant (and often romanticized) city who are struggling to afford to live there. In the other: A billion-dollar tech company, whose well-compensated employees are part of the reason the rents are so damn high to begin with, and whose sense of entitlement sometimes seems to be poorly concealed. (Or, in another reading: A well-meaning company just trying to do what companies do — grow, make a profit — but being obstructed at every turn by a nostalgic, reactionary populous over-regulating Airbnb in order to fix its own homegrown housing supply problems.)
Either way, the political clash embodies the philosophical tension between those who think the influx of tech dollars is a force for good in the city, and those who believe they have fundamentally changed the city for the worse.
This narrative tension — helped along by the billions of dollars on the table — captured the attention of the national media. San Francisco's unique proposition system, which allows voters to weigh in on policy issues directly and with considerable finality, adds democratic romance to the tale. Every major outlet, from The New York Times to USA Today to MSNBC, covered the citywide trial of Airbnb; the story, in one form or another, was trending on Facebook all week. But while that story ultimately ended in celebration for Airbnb campaign staffers and employees, the company has not emerged from the weeks of scrutiny unscathed.
This was not Airbnb's first political battle, but it was, by far, the highest profile. Like any candidate who wins a primary only to start over in a general election, Airbnb emerges from the battle bruised. The embarrassing ads the company pasted all over the city, and immediately had to take down, lent credence to a long-standing fear in the city — that these billion dollar companies that claim to reinvent urban life believe their astronomical financial success affords them a say in how that urban life is governed. While those concerns did not lose Airbnb the election, they will likely live to inform how Airbnb, and its so-called sharing economy brethren, are viewed around the country, and around the world.
Airbnb, it would seem, is prepared to rise to that challenge. While the company is headquartered in San Francisco and fought hard there, the company has property listings in 34,000 cities, each of which, according to global head of policy Chris Lehane, "has its own flavor." The sheer variety of municipal legal codes has been repeatedly cited by Airbnb as the reason the company can't create a customized product for each city depending on its laws. While cities like Philadelphia, Milan, Frankfurt and Amsterdam have, according to Lehane, embraced Airbnb and been willing to work with it on regulations, relations have been rockier elsewhere. Santa Monica cracked down on the company in the spring, and in October, Airbnb had to fight off regulations in Québec, the first of their kind in Canada.
But when Airbnb's executives look out at the world, they don't see a fragmented puzzle of local politics and planning codes. They see Moscow, where Russians are renting out rooms on Airbnb as a means of surviving the country's current recession. They see Havana, where Cubans were listing their homes in droves . They see, as Lehane said to a room full of reporters over breakfast the morning after the election, a global network of guests and hosts that, if politically organized by and in favor of the company, could be enormously powerful.
And so organizing and training them is exactly what Airbnb plans to do, using its victory in San Francisco to unite Airbnb's most passionate users into a series of clubs in cities around the world. The goal is to have created 100 of them by 2016. When election season rolls around that year, legions of customer advocates will be ready and waiting to come out against any group or individual who doesn't wholeheartedly embrace Airbnb and what it stands for.
There was a lot at stake for Airbnb in this election. California regulatory policy often leads the rest of the country. Had the regulation passed, it could have had a domino effect, spreading enthusiasm for a crackdown from city to city. Airbnb spent millions to win in San Francisco. It will spend millions more to win in other cities — that much is clear. "It's a great lesson," Lehane said, "but it's also a template." But while Airbnb might feel it has a blueprint for global domination in its pocket, taking the tactics San Franciscans have been exposed to over the last few months on the road could change the company's public image. What happened in San Francisco this week probably won't define the future of the company, but what happens over the course of the next year just might.
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.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.