Prop F: You Can Do Anything in Your Bedroom but Rent It

Both proponents and opponents of San Francisco’s “Airbnb measure” — Proposition F — see the November ballot initiative as a David vs. Goliath contest. Both sides also see themselves as David. And both sides have a point.

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The measure would impose additional restrictions on short-term rentals. Supporters can claim to be the little guys because the deep-pocketed opposition — headlined by the home-sharing technology platform Airbnb — has $8 million to bury the less than $400,000 raised by the “yes” campaign, according to proponent Dale Carlson. Prop F does have high-profile supporters, notably Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but when the other side outspends you by a 20-1 ratio, you can call yourself the underdog.

The No on F folks also stand for the little guy (or gal) who rents out a guest room to make ends meet. San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener says he opposes the measure because more and more of his constituents rely on Airbnb. Many are women, often older women, who are “house poor” and presently could not afford to buy the homes they bought years ago. They don’t want to take on a full-time roommate; they also enjoy the energy young travelers bring with them. “The one thing they have is that spare bedroom,” Wiener told the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board last month. If Prop F is approved, “they are going to get thrown under the bus.”

The “yes” folks have a populist message. Former San Francisco City Attorney Louise Renne put it this way: “The short-term rentals, in my view, are reducing the housing stock.” Tourists don’t belong in residential neighborhoods, the “yes” side adds. Speculators are buying properties so that they can cash in by setting up pseudo-hotels that aren’t up to code. Something must be done.

The “yes” side’s remedy, however, threatens to cut into the income of middle-class residents — people like architect Kepa Askenasy, who told me last year she was “just trying to survive in this beautiful city and do it in a way that’s positive for everybody.” Because City Hall adopted legislation championed by former Supervisor David Chiu, she registered with the city and pays the 14 percent hotel tax. Airbnb now pays about $1 million each month in taxes. Askenasy is proud that the San Francisco startup also threw in some $25 million that would have been levied as taxes if the Chiu legislation had taken effect earlier. Now, she said Thursday, critics should give the new rules time to work.

What really frosts Askenasy is that a small group of city big shots wants to cut into her side business on the grounds that there is not enough affordable housing. City Hall failed to ensure there would be more homes for working residents. Large-scale developers did not build those homes. Somehow the proponents of Prop F are blaming the sharing economy — that is, entrepreneurial San Franciscans — for a housing shortage.

Keith Freedman rents out a spare bedroom and a Murphy bed in his apartment’s living room. He told me, “Most of the guests I get couldn’t afford to come to San Francisco and stay in a hotel.” Gag Airbnb and San Francisco becomes a town for well-heeled tourists only. If Prop F is approved, big government will dictate what people cannot do in their own bedroom — rent it out.

I was a little surprised to see Janan New of the San Francisco Apartment Association on the “yes” team. I thought it was landlords’ interest to push back against overregulation. Her businesses have to comply with rent control and have invested a lot of money to comply with building codes. It’s only fair to level the playing field for property owners (and their tenants) who have met the city’s high standards. When San Francisco rushed into the sharing economy, New added, “it was like the wild Wild West.”

San Francisco was born in that wild Wild West. Adventurous souls scraped together enough coin to reach a new town that oozed opportunity. How did this city become a stuffy parlor where locals invite the wrath of the law if they rent a room to Norwegian tourists who stay out late and talk too loudly?

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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