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Here Comes More Fighting About Airbnb

Scott Lucas | November 25, 2014 | Story Politics

Opponents of a new law that regulates Airbnb in San Francisco have announced that they’ll be gathering signatures to put a tougher set of regulations on the ballot in 2015—in the same election that Mayor Ed Lee, a supporter of the law, is up for reelection. Though we could write a normal story about it, in the spirit of the sharing economy, we’re renting out our paragraphs to those in favor and opposed to the new measure to make their cases. Call it Sharing Journalism—it's a whole new paradigm. We're beyond rules here. These are our paraphrases, but we’ve tried to hew as close as possible to what’s actually in the public record.

Housing activist: The legislation is plainly a giveaway to a well-connected corporate interest. Whatever you think about the zoning issues—and we’ll get to those—a company can’t just decide when it wants to pay taxes. Airbnb started operations in 2008 but only started paying the San Francisco hotel tax on October first. You don’t get to dodge the tax collector for five years like that. If Airbnb is going to be legalized, at the very minimum it has to come at the price of the back taxes, which amount to something like $25 million.

Neighborhood preservationist: Even if Airbnb were to pay its back taxes, the new regulations are flawed. Unenforceable, even. For one thing, they say that only permanent residents can offer rentals, and that if you’re renting out a whole unit, you can only do it for 90 days a year. Since there’s no way for the city to tell if a host is really in the unit, that effectively means that units can be rented out for the entire year. That turns residential real estate into hotel rooms. We have zoning laws to prevent exactly that kind of thing. It's about responsibility.

Housing activist: Right, exactly. We had enough signatures to go to the ballot last year, but we wanted to see how the legislation would work out. We’re not happy, so we’re going back to the voters. We want to see a transparent registration system and a blanked limit on how many days that a unit can be offered.

City official: Look, it’s a compromise. Nobody gets everything they wanted. But Airbnb isn’t going to magically go poof anytime soon, so we had to come up with some framework. The back taxes are a red herring. The city’s Treasurer can go after Airbnb on them already—he doesn’t need a ballot measure. Is Airbnb changing the city’s housing patterns? Sure. Is it the end of the world? Probably not.

Airbnb executive: I think we deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

City official: I don’t think that argument is going to convince them.

Housing activist: Yeah, no.

Airbnb executive: We are glad that we’re regulated. Did we work with David Chiu to get the bill in shape? You bet we did. How are you going to run a business—much less take yourself public—if you’re not sure what your legal status is in the very city you’re headquartered in. And, you know, we’re working right now with the city Treasurer on the back taxes issue. Don’t be shocked if some deal is worked out between now and election day 2015.

Housing activist: Either way, you can believe we’re going to try to tie the mayor to this. It’s a huge giveaway to a major campaign donor. Whoever runs against Ed Lee—and the smart money says it’s Mark Leno—can use this as a wedge issue. Even Dianne Feinstein doesn’t like the law—and she’s not Chris Daly. There’s a political opening here.

Tech savvy at-risk youth: Yeah sure, it’s an opening, if you’re winning coalition is just mansion-dwelling 81-year olds. The danger here is that by betting big against Airbnb, you’re letting yourself get boxed into the same anti-tech optics that brought down David Campos’s assembly campaign. That didn’t work for Campos—why do you think it will work in 2015? Carping about Airbnb makes you look out of step, not with the future so much as the present.

Airbnb executive: Which, like we said, Nobel Peace Prize.

Neighborhood preservationist: The thing is, we don’t need the scooter-riding, ironic-mustache demographic to win an election. Just look at the waterfront development fights. We went 2 and 0 on that. In fact, opposition to Airbnb lets us craft a coalition of progressive housing activists and more moderate home owners that could be exactly what we need to win. Well, that and the Flower Mart.

Airbnb executive: Speaking of winning…

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