Sen. Feinstein Goes to War Against Airbnb

In her mind, Dianne Feinstein will always be mayor of San Francisco. She may be a high-ranking U.S. senator with more than her share of clout in Washington, but she never forgets her roots as onetime mayor and supervisor in the city by the bay. As Ess Eff’s mayor emerita, Feinstein recently inserted herself into the city’s regulation of Airbnb and other short-term rental concerns. Last month, DiFi wrote a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle urging Mayor Ed Lee to veto compromise legislation written by Supervisor David Chiu. The senator sees Airbnb as a neighborhood killer. Lee failed to heed Feinstein’s advice, and now she apparently is withholding her endorsement for his re-election.

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Living in stately Pacific Heights, Feinstein no doubt wants to keep trade out of her neighborhood. Alas, she does so at a cost to everyday San Franciscans who rely on Airbnb and similar platforms to make ends meet. San Francisco’s economy is dynamic, and many residents have to hustle to afford a roof over their heads in the Special City.

As a Republican, I am loving watching an old-guard Democrat take a stand against one of the most popular startups in the sharing economy. Airbnb is an apple-pie platform for many millennials. Feinstein wrote that Chiu’s measure will “destroy the integrity of zoning through San Francisco.” She sees her role as protecting residential neighborhoods from “commercialization.”

Young voters, take note. This is what happens when governments get too big and too self-important. People who rent out a spare bedroom or a backyard cottage become expendable.

Architect Kepa Askenasy of Potrero Hill found that renting out a guest room helped her pay medical bills after she was in a car accident. Askenasy likes Feinstein. She voted for Feinstein. She considers herself representative of locals who are “just trying to survive in this beautiful city and do it in a way that’s positive for everybody.”

Askenasy doesn’t see how renting her spare rooms reduces what activists refer to as the city’s “scarce housing stock.” She wouldn’t want a permanent roommate. In the plus column, Askenasy sees the peer-to-peer economy as contributing to making basic resources go further and allowing the city to be “more sustainable” — another tenet of the left. “It’s something that’s beneficial,” she stressed. “There’s nothing wrong.”

To me, the strongest argument against Airbnb involves fairness. How can hotels and bed-and-breakfasts compete with dabblers who don’t have to pay a hotel tax? That’s one of the stronger parts of Chiu’s law: It requires hosts to pay a 14 percent hotel tax, register with the city and get insurance. Only residents who live on a property for three-quarters of a year qualify to be hosts. Askenasy welcomes the compromise and the protections.

So what about all those tourists who, according to numerous anecdotes, knock on the wrong door in the wee hours? Chiu trumpets the city’s ability to yank registration from bad hosts.

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Christine Falvey, told me that Hizzoner has discussed the issue with the senator and that he is open to refining the rules. “It’s a balance.”

For its part, Airbnb was willing to forfeit its on-the-fly spirit to keep city regulators at bay. Being sucked into the establishment is the price of success.

A little bird told me to phone real estate investor Doug Engmann, who has DiFi’s ear on short-term rentals. Engmann told me he never discussed Airbnb with Feinstein until after he heard she opposed the Chiu measure. Engmann and the senator share a distaste, he told me, for Airbnb’s “seemingly willful decision to encourage people to break the laws.”

The thing is I don’t think it should be against the law to rent out a room in your own home. And if that’s what zoning is for, then zoning laws need to change.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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