Airbnb Holds its Breath as San Franciscans Vote on Prop F

San Franciscans will vote Tuesday on Proposition F, also known as the “Airbnb Initiative,” which seeks to restrict short-term rentals. Polls will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

At first glance, it appears that the fight is about short-term rental aggregators such as Airbnb.

However, the battle lines are muddy.

On one side, landlords support Prop F, because tenants sometimes contract with such aggregators without their permission, with unwelcome results.

However, many tenants also support it, based on the argument that large property owners are taking units off the market to contract with short-term rental aggregators, thus contributing to San Francisco’s housing shortage and high rents.

Big Money

Prop F supporters have drummed up about US$450,000, “which is more than I expected,” said Dale Carlson, cofounder of Sharebetter SF, which drafted Prop F.

Airbnb, meanwhile, reportedly has spent $8 million and brought in Chris Lehane, a political strategist for the Clinton administration.

“They’ll spend between $10 million and $12 million when all is done,” Carlson told the E-Commerce Times.

Airbnb is not the only aggregator in the market — just the most prominent.

“There are more than 60 players operating in San Francisco, and we’re going after all of them,” Carlson said, “but Airbnb is the one putting up all the money against us.”

The Stakes

Airbnb could be fighting for survival. If it loses this ballot measure, “their business will go away in other cities as well,” Carlson suggested.

For some San Franciscans, it’s a question of whether they’ll be able to afford living in their city. Rents are among the highest in the U.S., and there don’t appear to be any indications that they will be coming down any time soon.

Short-term rentals are a boon, argued Airbnb spokesperson Christopher Nulty.

“Home sharing is making it possible for thousands of middle-class families to make ends meet and stay in the city, while Prop F is a hotel-backed measure that is falsely drawing a line between regular San Franciscans sharing their homes and a decades-long housing crisis,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Hotels, Landlords, Tenants Unite

San Francisco hotels likely would benefit from passage of Prop F.

However, it appears that Sharebetter SF represents the interests of landlords, some of whom expressed concerns about tenants contracting with short-term rental aggregators without their knowledge or permission.

Tenants can register their units with the San Francisco planning department and become authorized for short-term rentals without the property owner’s knowledge or permission, Carlson said.

However, it doesn’t seem as though tenants are rushing to register their units with the city. Only about 700 of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 units converted to full-time tourist accommodations are so registered, according to widely published reports.

Besides hotels and landlords, supporters of Prop F include some unions and renters’ organizations, such as the San Francisco Tenants Union — an unusual partnership in a city where landlords and tenants have been at loggerheads for years.

Current laws allow rentals to be let without restriction when the host is present, and for 90 days in the year when the host isn’t.

Prop F aims at imposing one cap — 75 days a year — on all.

It would require property owners to report quarterly to the SF Planning Department when their units were rented and for how long, and when the hosts themselves were present, prompting concerns about privacy.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Whether voters will pass Prop F is up in the air.

“I’d love to win, but I don’t expect to,” Carlson said.

If his side should lose Tuesday’s vote, “that won’t be the end of the fight,” he added. “If we have to go to the ballot again next year, OK.”

The battle to curb short-term rental aggregators will be “a long fight,” Carlson continued, and the vote Tuesday “is just a skirmish.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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