Yesterday a door-to-door signature collector arrived and I chatted with him for a while, although I declined to sign anything. He was looking for local support for a ballot initiative concerning the future of home sharing services like Airbnb. I’ve also gotten plenty of pro and con literature in the mail recently. And then I noticed this billboard on Market Street tonight.
So I typed in the URL and saw a collection of the most adorable elderly people, single mothers, gay couples, and families with children all looking like they could only manage to make ends meet in this very expensive town thanks to the supplemental income they earn by renting out their spare rooms to Swedish tourists.
I don’t actually have a horse in this race. At the end of the day there are new winners and losers and things are simply different. Complaining about Airbnb is a bit like kvetching that there are no travel agents or book stores anymore because of the Internet. That ship sailed folks. Now we’re just negotiation the terms of the new order.
What really fascinates me is the way Airbnb has crafted its narrative. It’s making an appeal to both property owners and people who already have legally protected rental accommodations who want to stay in San Francisco. Airbnb is pitching itself as a tool to help people hold on to their sometimes precarious lives here. Perhaps these are the winners.
But I can think of at least one set of losers – the people who might have been able to move in to the city, but whose rooms and apartments are now permanently occupied by temporary people. When I first arrived in the city years ago I spent my first months couch surfing with friends. Then I found cheap rooms to rent until I became established enough to settle in to a regular apartment of my own. That entire process is gone. Every inch of the city has been monetized. No one has a spare room in San Francisco anymore. The hyper efficiency of the “sharing economy” means the end of slack. You want to sleep on the couch? The meter is running.
So many of my immediate neighbors rent their apartments on Airbnb so frequently that these tourists and business travelers are effectively my real neighbors now. I’m not particularly bothered by this, but it is a radical departure from what the area was like when I first moved here. These visitors are generally pleasant, but they’re never the same neighbors for more than a week. It’s like living in a giant hotel.
I don’t have the temperament to fight City Hall about much of anything. Instead, I tend to shop around for a different City Hall I like better. I look for a warm welcome instead of an argument. San Francisco is a fantastic place to live. But it’s already way past the point where it makes any sense to try and live here if you aren’t already grandfathered in or relatively wealthy. And the city is becoming just that much less interesting and stifled over time as the cost of living continues to rise. A better life can be found elsewhere in other cities that give people what they want at a price that makes sense without all the prissy fuss and legislation about who’s entitled to what.