Apr 25, 2015 · 13 minutes

The battle lines were clearly marked as the overflow crowd filled San Francisco City Hall on Thursday evening. The city's Planning Commission were to consider three amendments to the 'Airbnb law' which regulates the operation of "home sharing" companies. Supporters on both sides had been busy handing out stickers.

One, a standard shipping label rectangle in stark red and black, read: "Homes not Hotels: Don't let Airbnb Write Our Laws."

The other, available in two different tones of teal for the common folk and another in red designating Airbnb point-persons, was a custom glossy decal on circular stickers. It read: "Protect Home Sharing. Protect Affordability."

Almost everyone in the public gallery proudly wore a sticker, with the pro-Airbnb legion vastly outnumbering the antis. This was not by chance, as soon became apparent. Airbnb had coordinated, and stickered, its supporters with military precision.

In the hall outside the chamber, I asked a teal sticker wearer what was meant by "Protect Affordability."

"Sharing makes it more affordable to live in San Francisco," she said. It was a neat answer -- perhaps too neat, so I asked her if she worked for Airbnb. She refused to answer, but offered to connect me with an Airbnb communications person. I was able to infer from this that she did work for Airbnb, and she grudgingly conceded the point: She is on the "Community Team," and she was not at liberty to share her opinion. That was for "Communications."

I took antique elevator ride down to the ground floor, where I'd heard the stickers were being distributed. I really wanted a sticker. And surely Airbnb would be glad to offer me one. After all, in a recent letter to hosts, the company made clear its commitment to generosity.  “We want to be clear," they wrote, "it’s still fair to share in San Francisco. And we are going to make sure it stays that way.”

Against a wall I saw two teal sticker wearers -- a woman and a man -- holding clipboards.

"How do I get a sticker?" I asked them.

"Who invited you?" the woman responded, flipping to the front page of her list of names. I admitted that I'd come to the public hearing uninvited. But I still wanted a sticker.

"Well, what brings you here?"

I explained I was simply a concerned citizen, attending on behalf of concerned citizens everywhere. Which, I hope you'll agree, is true.

"Let me check on it,"she said, retiring to huddle with another stickered compatriot in an adjoining gallery where other members of the operation were chatting and hacking away on laptops and phones.

I asked her colleague -- the teal fellow, if you will -- how the company had developed the list of names he was toting.

"We have a methodology for that," he explained, and excused himself to join his coworkers in the nearby gallery.

I eventually got tired of waiting, and wandered over to talk with a red-stickered woman who was pacing by the City Hall entrance, engaging with new arrivals. She seemed to be the maitre d'BnB.

I asked her whether I could get a sticker.

"Sure," she said.

Hurrah! It's still fair to share in San...

"Do you remember who invited you?"

Even after learning I was an uninvited citizen, she was still chipper and solicitous. She wanted to help me get a sticker, and led me over to the clipboard duo who had resumed their post. She said she was a volunteer.

"I'm sorry," the woman with the clipboard said, as the volunteer sought to introduce us. "It's just that we only have the exact number of stickers that we need, so we can't just give them out."

With that, she turned her attention to some invited guests queued behind me, and I returned upstairs to the main event.

* * * *

The session lasted ten full hours, seven of them devoted to the short term rental issue. Commission President Rodney Fong's quaffed silver mop presided over the hubbub without sign of wilting.

First to speak were Supervisors Jane Kim, David Campos and Mark Farrell, the respective authors of the amendments under consideration.

Kim spoke first, making her case for expanding the public's right of action in short-term rental matters, allowing neighbors and qualified non-profits to bring civil proceedings against wayward Airbnb hosts.

She mentioned a statistic from last fall, when all short-term rentals were still technically illegal. At the time of the law's passage in October, there were 1200 complaints concerning Airbnb abuse awaiting response from the City, and only two had found their way to civil proceedings. The complaints process at the Planning Department remains a dead end for most. Kim's proposals would provide a route for bringing these complaints directly to the courts.

Next, Campos and Farrell took turns representing either side of the yawning political schism that cleaves all talk of Airbnb at City Hall.

Campos seized the pulpit with signature populist gusto, turning the rhetoric up a notch to impugn the Planning Department for caving to the Mayor, Ron Conway [disclosure: a Pando investor] and Airbnb by reversing its earlier criticism of the law. Airbnb and others should only be able to list registered units, he argued; the companies should be compelled to provide booking and listing information to regulators; rentals should be limited to 60 days a year. And hosting platforms should be eligible defendants in civil actions stemming from their operations.   Campos knows those proposals are likely doomed, but he has a back-up plan: put the issue on the ballot this fall.

Campos spared Conway no wrath. After all, the prolific angel investor and politics meddler co-funded a series of anti-Campos attack ads last year, suggesting that Campos was an apologist for domestic violence. The National Organization for Women called Conway's ads "really outrageous.”

Said Campos:

Let me close by saying I am greatly disappointed with some of the recommendations of your staff ... What happens or doesn't happen at this commission meeting will send a clear message about how we do business in San Francisco. I believe that home sharing and short term rentals have a place in San Francisco but what doesn't have a place in San Francisco is the idea that a corporation can write a law, then ignore the very law that it wrote, and then refuse to provide the very basic information that is needed to enforce that law. Mr. Conway and others who have invested heavily in Airbnb may think that they can dictate what happens in this building. I hope that through your actions this commission and the Board of Supervisors will demonstrate that it is not corporate titans like Mr. Conway that run San Francisco, that run the Planning Department, but that this department and the policy of this city is ultimately driven by what is right for this city, not what is right for the bottom line of a major political contributor.
Up next came Supervisor Farrell, representing the Mayor's proposed amendments -- a hard cap of 120 days; the creation of a standalone office to administer short-term rentals; allowing private right of action to neighbors within 100 feet of a rental. Farrell countered Campos' vision of an unholy corporate-political alliance with a brief appeal to mercy for Airbnb from the zeal of government.
I do want to take a moment to address one of the recommendations, that on its face seems very easy to agree with conceptually but one that I feel would have unintended consequences. And it's the recommendation that would prohibit any hosting platform from listing any unit unless they had the registration number with it. I do think that if we are serious about addressing short term rentals and the entirety of the issues that it brings, that this recommendation should not stand. To be clear this recommendation only targets one company. Airbnb. And I understand that in the past and even today, that they are an easy target. But if you look at the number of listings, Airbnb the number of listings in San Francisco has gone down, while all of the other homesharing platforms have gone up. And it has never been talked about or discussed that they should comply with a similar type of law. From my perspective as a city we want to address the entire issue, not simply focus or scapegoat one company.
After that, the Supervisors filed out. A Planning Department representative presented his organization's modified recommendations, and a hired academic researcher gave brief testimony about a report he's drafted, using the admittedly limited dataset about Airbnb listings which he was able to cull from the open web. Then the floor gave way to three hours of public comment.

The audience participation section of the hearing gave the clearest look at the sort of disruptive innovation that brought hundreds of San Franciscans to vast granite mausoleum of City Hall on a sunny Thursday afternoon in the first place. Airbnb had packed the chamber with warm bodies, orchestrating the appearance of overwhelming public support with at least as much skill as more established players like the local SEIU or the Sierra Club. Shocking temerity, really, for a beleaguered scapegoat. Neither VRBO nor Craigslist took up the struggle, though they each received some mention and fall under the regulatory umbrella for short term rental platforms.

* * * *

By 10pm the Planning Commission arrived at its final recommendations:  A 120-day cap; expanded public right of action, and support for the Mayor's proposed "one-stop shop" for Airbnb regulation -- the Office of Short Term Residential Rental Registration and Enforcement. So add the OSTR3E to the official glossary of City acronyms.

The strictest and most onerous rule recommended by the commission is a requirement that any rental listing offered for less than 30 days must have a registry number verified by the platform against the City's database, as part of every transaction. The Commission voted 4-3 in favor of the ordinance, which was strenuously opposed by Airbnb's Regional Head of Public Policy David Owen, who provided testimony and answered questions from the commission. [Correction: Later in the session a second vote was called, and this recommendation was reversed] No other short-term rental/sharing platform openly sent a soul.

Echoing earlier testimony from Supervisor Farrell, Owen explained that technologically and logistically, complying with such ordinance would place an unrealistic burden on Airbnb to enforce the law in the city's place, and bad actors would simply migrate to other platforms to escape the regulation in bad faith, while Airbnb would be punished for its cooperation and partnership with the City.

The commission did not buy it.

"I'm having a bit of an out of body experience here. This is 2015. I come from technology company [Salesforce]...this is not hard stuff. There is a technological solution, no one is sitting there with a quill pen going 'let's see, this is the address...' This is $20 billion dollar technology company, with teams of IT people and we have IT organizations. Let's agree on the concept and let's figure out how to make it work and move forward.," said Commissioner Dennis Richards, nee Salesforce VP of Credit, Collections and Customer Service.

"A couple of suits, a couple of court cases, a couple of fines and let's see where we are at then....this is the minimum, this is essential, it is the key to any type of enforcement, otherwise we are back to where we were again with the February 1st legislation."

Commissioner Kathrin Moore agreed.

"I think it would actually be in the interest of Mr. Owen, representing Airbnb today, to be really the leader in how to do it properly and then create indeed the mechanisms by which others follow suit ... why not take this company to be the leader in the use of technology, which while it is worldwide is also able to address specific local concerns. If you started here you might as well tune it, to the best of your ability, here in the city."

At the end of the day, the Planning Commission officially recommended, in accord with the Planning Department's advice and against that of the Mayor, Supervisor Farrell, and Airbnb, that hosting platforms only list registered units. Boom. Though nobody wants to run against Ed Lee for Mayor this fall, he's catching some powerful opposition here and there. First Rose Pak, then Airbnb and now Planning?

The commission was less obstreperous on other items. Platforms still won't have to provide the full compliment of data the Planning Department asked for in March before changing its mind. Hosting platforms won't be subject to the same public rights of action that their hosts are. In fact, if the commission's guidance prevails, hosts would assume the full burden and risks of regulatory compliance. Meanwhile, Airbnb would continue to "voluntarily" pay the hotel tax on their behalf.

* * * *

I caught up with the commission's final recommendations by watching it here on SFGovTV.org, where you can find every weekly meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission since August 2006. God bless you, Gavin Newsom. You see, I had to duck out of the (ten hour, remember) meeting for a prior engagement to which I HAD been invited: An anniversary happy hour for the "crowdsourced commute" platform Chariot at their new offices in South Beach.

Inside the party I met the eight employees of Chariot, their mothers and fathers and girlfriends and former incubator cohort and investors. The rest of the crowd consisted of those like me who had been invited to the party after riding in a Chariot* at least once.

To my surprise, Supervisor Scott Weiner joined the festivities, arriving with a "Certificate of Honor" from the City clutched under one arm. Last year at this time, Weiner was taking the lead at the Board of Supervisors in supporting the "Google Bus" pilot program, against the formidable backlash which that program excited. He is no foe of controversy.

I asked him why he'd stayed out of the Planning Commission/Airbnb fray.

"I support Airbnb," Weiner said staunchly. "I voted for the law that we passed and I believe it's too soon to start changing it. I think that Planning is acting a little crazy right now, they started making objections after the law had been in place for just a few weeks. Give it a year or two, at least."

Apparently the Airbnb agenda still has some friends at City Hall.

Soon afterwards, Weiner was on stage presenting Chariot founder/CEO Ali Vahabzadeh with the Certificate of Honor. The boyish former banker introduced the city official:

"A lot of people here support us privately, but Scott Weiner supports us publicly at City Hall, and I want to thank him for the work he's done."

Weiner followed:

"The city is getting more and more crowded. It's an exciting time, but it is getting harder to get around. We are always going to need other choices. Chariot represents that. Ultimately it is about giving people the choice not to have a car in the city," Weiner said, "And so I'd like to present this Certificate of Honor to Ari and Chariot for the work they are doing on behalf of the Board of Supervisors."

Vahabzadeh thanked Weiner for his support, and introduced the band:

"My friend Owen here works for Google and moonlights as an American rocker," he said. At that, Red Machine crunched into a power rock original, and Supervisor Weiner headed for the door.

We love you San Francisco, good night.

  • Last week I took a Muni bus to a Chariot loading zone and hopped into an un-refurbished Ford Econoline heading somewhere I had no need to be. Research.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]