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Even if Proposition F Fails, the Battle Is Hardly Over for Airbnb

Today, San Francisco. Tomorrow, the world.

Noah Kulwin / Re/code

One of San Francisco’s longest electoral battles in recent memory is coming to an end today. Sort of.

The city’s central drama surrounds Proposition F, a ballot initiative that would more strictly regulate short-term home rental services like Airbnb. Mayor Ed Lee has fought against the initiative alongside Airbnb and tech industry figures like investor Ron Conway. On the other side are a mix of housing activists, hotel industry interests, unions and longtime San Franciscans.

But regardless of the outcome of today’s election, Airbnb has a longterm regulatory battle on its hands. Though the anti-Proposition F folks are leading in the polls by almost 20 points (in spite of those unpopular ads that went viral), the reality is that Airbnb has spent millions of dollars to defeat a single ballot initiative in one city. The risk for Airbnb is that winning in San Francisco is really a pyrrhic victory; if it demonstrates that it’s willing to pour millions of dollars into waging ugly political fights, activists elsewhere may try their luck on the ballot or in political arenas.

Dale Carlson, co-founder of the pro-Proposition F group ShareBetter, says that his team has “had conversations with both elected and community leaders all over the country.”

“They’re wrestling with the same phenomenon. It is conceivable there could be a number of ballot initiatives in a number of cities around the U.S. next year,” Carlson said. “Instead of Airbnb spending $12 million, it could be $100 million.”

Though Airbnb isn’t sharing what its plans are after the Proposition F vote, its global strategy isn’t all that dissimilar from what other highly valued unicorns are doing. Like Uber, for example. Both companies are aggressively spending in China to grow their markets.

But while Uber has been able to seemingly steamroll regulators city by city, the home rental company doesn’t have coffers that are quite as deep. Airbnb has raised about $2.3 billion to the ride-hailing giant’s $8.2 billion. The home-sharing service has won regulatory battles in places from Amsterdam to Jersey City, but activists like Carlson argue that these regulatory structures don’t really work because they’re not actually enforced.

“Airbnb has 7,900 hosts in S.F., that’s the number* that they report. The Office of Short-Term Rentals has registered over 700 people,” Carlson said. “If Airbnb was seriously interested in complying with the people, they’d tell the hosts to register. Would it be okay for Uber to put unlicensed drivers in unregistered vehicles on their platform?”

 San Franciscans casting ballots at the Italian Athletic Club
San Franciscans casting ballots at the Italian Athletic Club
Noah Kulwin / Re/code

Earlier today, I ran into Board of Supervisors candidate Julie Christensen on Columbus Avenue, a couple blocks uphill from the famous Beat poet hangout, City Lights Bookstore.

In the city’s North Beach neighborhood, there’s a toss-up Board of Supervisors race between crucial Mayor Ed Lee ally Christensen and former city supervisor Aaron Peskin. Christensen opposes the ballot measure. Peskin has loudly advocated for its passage.

Flanked by sign-wielding supporters and a small cadre of staffers, Christensen told me that “blaming technology for our situation is not accurate or fair.”

“There are other industries besides tech that are bringing people into the city, this has been going for decades. … I think everyone realizes that we need to rein in the misuse of the [home sharing] platforms.” she said. “People think you pass a law and the world changes overnight. What was necessary in order to get the ordinances passed last year, to make them effective, was to literally set up an office. And that didn’t happen overnight.”

Christensen also argued that “had it not been for the ballot measure (Proposition F), I think we would have passed additional strengthening of the ordinance at the board and been more proactive.”

The activists are skeptical of this. Carlson says that if Christensen is elected, “any chance that the Airbnb matter will be addressed at City Hall seems pretty remote. If Peskin wins, he’s been a strong support of the proposition. There may be a chance that we can get something done at City Hall.”

But what comes next? What is the next battle? In 2015, San Francisco is a city that is mostly if not exclusively for the well-to-do; the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city is $5,000. Last month, a developer submitted a proposal for a 1.1 million square foot tech office complex in the SoMa neighborhood. Regardless of one’s perspective on Proposition F and stricter regulation of the tech industry, it’s clear that the city’s composition is changing rapidly and that there’s a reason a measure like Prop F will likely be defeated by a hefty margin.

Carlson doesn’t seem fazed.

“The history of progressive politics in this town is that for big ideas and big issues to be resolved, it sometimes takes multiple ballot measures over time. We put limits on commercial office development about five times before we won. Now we elect members of the Board of Supervisors by district. That was on the ballot seven times,” Carlson said. “People in this time are used to long, prolonged fights over the issues. If it takes multiple visits to the ballot to get something done, so be it.”

* Airbnb hasn’t actually released the number of listings in San Francisco. An investigation from the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year pegged the total at around 5,500.

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