Why Airbnb’s tactless SF ads encourage “Yes on F” votes

Ronny Kerr · October 23, 2015 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/40e3

As it turns out, city residents don't appreciate when companies whine about taxes

In case you missed it, home-sharing site Airbnb came under heavy fire this week thanks to ads it plastered around San Francisco passive-aggressively lamenting the fact that it now pays a $12 million yearly hotel tax.


A photo posted by Eric Eberhardt (@idontlikewords) on Oct 21, 2015 at 1:02pm PDT

Whining about taxes when you’re a $25 billion company is misguided; doing so while in the same breath condescending to essential city organizations--including the Public Library, Public Works, and the Board of Education--is just plain stupidity.

After residents snapped photos of the ads and lambasted the company across social media channels, Airbnb took to Twitter to apologize:

But, in my opinion, the damage is done.

As one user asked on Twitter, “how many people in your company said yes to [the ads] before print vendor sign off?”

In short, the ads cannot simply be shrugged off as a trivial mistake made by some intern--as much as Airbnb wishes--but instead serve as a glimpse into how the people running Airbnb view their tax contribution: not as a civic duty supporting an essential city good but rather as an annoying financial hurdle on their path to larger profits.

And when San Francisco residents hit the polls on November 3, many will have this in mind when deciding how to vote on Proposition F, a ballot initiative specifically designed by backers to curb Airbnb’s detrimental effect on the the city’s already squeezed housing economy.

Here’s what the existing short-term residential rental law requires:

  • A permanent resident can’t rent a unit until registering the unit with the city’s Office of Short-Term Residential Administration and Enforcement.
  • A unit may not be rented on a short-term basis for more than 90 day per year if the resident is not living there during the rental period. If the resident is living there, there is no limit to number of rental days.
  • Hosting platforms must inform users of the city’s regulations.

And here are the main changes Prop F would enact:

  • The number of short-term rentals would be limited to 75 days per year. There would be no distinction between whether the resident is living there at the time or not.
  • Residents offering short-term rentals would be required to submit quarterly reports indicating both the number of days they’re living in the unit and the number of days the unit is rented.
  • Short-term rentals of in-law units would be prohibited.

Ballot propositions are notoriously complex to navigate, and this one’s a doozy, sharply dividing not only politicians and their parties but also the city’s residents themselves.

Supporters include U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, State Senator Mark Leno, former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Examiner. Opponents include both the Democratic and Republican parties, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Ed Lee, Assemblymember David Chiu, and, of course, Airbnb.

Unfortunately for the opposition, Airbnb’s tactless ad campaign presents in plain view the contempt with which it views any regulations that might hinder its profit growth, especially when the company's campaign to fight Prop F ($8 million) nearly matches the amount they paid in taxes this year ($12 million).

Airbnb wants everyone to know that they’re perfectly happy with the city’s existing short-term rental laws (the first three bullets listed above), but maybe that’s because those laws are unenforceable, according to the city’s Planning Department, which should know: they're the department responsible for doing the enforcing.

And this, in turn, brings to the macroscopic level what this battle is about.

On one side, you have the tech behemoth and its libertarian allies, fighting for an absolute minimum of government rules and regulations so it can grow more freely. That's just good business. Honestly, the company probably dreams of the good old days (that is, the six years from its founding in 2008 through 2014) when it somehow managed to evade paying hotel taxes in San Francisco. (In fairness, I’ll point out that they’re now back-paying for those years).

On the other side of the spectrum are the socially-minded organizations and individuals trying to counteract the destruction wrought by Airbnb’s love of laissez-faire. The housing problem is obviously a lot bigger than any single company or policy, but there’s good reason for Prop F to be on the ballot.

It’s obviously not a perfect solution, but nobody (on either side) disagrees that it would help tighten the leaky rules currently on the book. Now, thanks to Airbnb’s ad campaign, many previously undecided voters probably have a better idea of the direction in which they're leaning.

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Airbnb.com is the “Ebay of space.” The online marketplace allows anyone from private residents to commercial properties to rent out their extra space. The reputation-based site allows for user reviews, verification, and online transactions, for which Airbnb takes a commission. As of June, 2009, the San Francisco-based company has listings in over 1062 cities in 76 countries.