A Shift In Tactics: Vote Postponed While Airbnb & Supporters Consider Growing Opposition

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Before yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Airbnb put on a show for cameramen from local network affiliates and a small group of sticker people and print press outside City Hall.

I did not receive the press materials these others did, though the Airbnb press office is well-aware I’m covering the story. As usual, I blame some quirk of Gmail’s spam filtration. The press materials included a self-study of Airbnb’s proprietary data (conclusion: Airbnb Good), and the announcement of Tuesday’s press conference.

At the presser, representatives from both the Chamber of Commerce and Consumer Watchdog presented their views. John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog was vigorous in his defense of Airbnb against the “overreaching” of City Hall:

“The proposed ordinance that requires home sharing platforms like Airbnb to turn over massive amounts of personal information would violate consumers’ privacy and is little more than a blank search warrant for law enforcement authorities,” Simpson said.

Such an ordinance would be “a basic violation of our civil rights,” he added.

The scene inside City Hall afterwards was less bombastic, though Edward Snowden was once again invoked to conflate municipal records-keeping with domestic surveillance. As soon as the Airbnb item came up in the agenda, Supervisor Mark Farrell made a motion to table the issue for a month. An hour or so of debate among the supervisors followed, before a 7-4 vote was cast in favor of Farrell’s motion.

My best guess is that Airbnb was well aware of the plan for such a motion, in advance. For the first time over the course of all the hearings this spring, the Airbnb dissenters outnumbered the sticker people in the crowd. Gone were the clipboard-weilding organizers in the downstairs hall.

Another first: Airbnb’s regional policy guru and former SF Board of Supervisors top aide David Owen was not present to marshal the troops.

What to make of this development? A few possibilities:

  1. Airbnb is a supple fighter. They drew their opponents out, got them to take an afternoon off work, to find someone to watch the kids. Then they disappeared into the mist.
  2. The amendments package put forward by the Mayor and Supervisor Farrell, which is more favorable to Airbnb than the one advanced by Supervisor David Campos, didn’t have the votes it needed to pass. Democracy is at least somewhat intact in City Hall.
  3. Supporters of the Mayor’s amendments heeded a poll released earlier this week by the group ShareBetter San Francisco, suggesting a clear majority of San Francisco voters support a proposed ballot measure to regulate Airbnb more closely than would the Mayor’s amendments. Hence a need to recraft the legislation into something more appeasing.

Whatever the reasoning, the law will not be taken up again in public until July 14th. Yesterday, several supervisors indicated that they would try to come up with a better amendment package than what is currently on offer. It promises to be a busy month behind closed doors.

In the course of the debate, two opposing views of Airbnb emerged. The majority opinion is that Airbnb is good for everyone (excepting the behavior of a few bad actors). Supervisors of this persuasion echoed the language of Airbnb’s press release/data analysis of the day before.

“Restricting short-term rentals is going to hurt low-income, long-term residents who just want to stay here,” said Supervisor Scott Weiner, encapsulating the argument. “I don’t care what Airbnb wants or thinks, I care about what my constituents want. I’ve talked to so many who say that short-term renting is what helps them survive in this town.”

Compare that to the conclusion portion of Airbnb’s analysis of its own data:

“The comprehensive profile outlined in this report underscores what we have always known: as San Francisco has become more and more expensive, home sharing has been the one thing making it possible for thousands of middle class families to stay in the city they love.”

Weiner’s comments occasioned hisses from the majority pro-regulation crowd.

The opposing side of the board held that although Airbnb was sometimes good, it could also be bad. The government’s role, this side maintained, was to constrain the bad parts.

“We know this is affecting our housing market. We know people are getting evicted,” said Supervisor Jane Kim, “If we keep putting off actual tools and resources to address this, we are exacerbating our housing crisis and allowing the incentives to abuse these platforms to continue. We need to move forward.”

Yesterday’s continuance vote seems to suggest that the Mayor can’t stream-roll a desired law into place in the case of Airbnb. Meanwhile, a ballot initiative has been submitted, passed muster at the City Attorney’s office, and nearly collected the signatures necessary to appear on the ballot this fall.

“A compromise is possible,” said Bill Carlson of ShareBetter SF, the group behind the petition. “We’ve always been willing to work something out so we don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on getting a measure on the ballot. The door is open if you want to reach us. It’s going to take someone at City Hall exercising real leadership and bringing everyone together to hammer something out.”

ShareBetter advanced a similar initiative last year, which it abandoned in hopes of a legislative solution that never materialized. This time around they have a bit more leverage.

“Our people gathering signatures tell us it’s an even easier sell this year than it was last year. The issue has gotten more visibility, it’s more controversial. People see the impact of Airbnb on housing in the neighborhoods and recognize that City Hall isn’t doing anything.”

One perhaps unlikely group of opposition to Airbnb’s political will may be gathering among the platform’s own hosts.

I spoke with Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards by phone this morning, who told me that he has been meeting with Airbnb hosts concerned about whether the platform has their best interests in mind.

“When you pull some hosts out of the glare of Airbnb, they get real. Some have told me they feel like they are getting thrown under the bus. They agree that registration and only listing registered units is reasonable and understand that Airbnb’s complete refusal of this is hurting them. They are raising this conversation with other hosts,” Richards said.

By asserting its right to list unregistered units on it platform, regardless of their legality, Airbnb may lose the support of those hosts who have registered. By refusing to register as a short-term rental platform with the Office of the Tax Collector and Treasurer, Airbnb submits its hosts to an unpleasant tax process. Perhaps the hosts themselves will break with Airbnb’s “but Edward Snowden” rationale for opposing such measures. If so, those hosts probably won’t be invited to the next Board of Supervisors hearing.

Until that hearing, it looks to be a month of tea leaves and rumblings from City Hall.

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