So people living in San Francisco went sort of ballistic on the internet yesterday expressing outrage at a bunch of truly tone deaf ads from Airbnb
, which were clearly an attempt to push against an upcoming proposition vote in San Francisco (Prop F) that would limit the ability of homeowners to rent out their homes via Airbnb. To start off, let's be clear: these ads are terrible
. They're basically all premised on the fact that under existing law, taxes paid by Airbnb users (not Airbnb...) to the city from their rentals equals about $12 million. It's a valid point that Airbnb contributes to the city tax revenue, but the way in which Airbnb decided to demonstrate it simply reeks of entitlement, with each one basically asking for "more" for their $12 million, including from libraries.
If you can't read that, it says:
Dear Public Library System,
We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later.
Most of the other ads are based on a similar theme. Julia Carrie Wong at SF Weekly has collected a bunch of images
as has Sarah Jeong at Vice's Motherboard (link above). Here are just a few:
It's not hard to realize how these ads came about. People who dislike Airbnb have been er... quite vocal in their arguments about how it's destroying the city (and by "destroying" they generally mean "changing.") It's not even clear how much Airbnb is really impacting things, as there are many, many other issues that are creating much bigger problems with housing in San Francisco, but it's not crazy to suggest that Airbnb had at least played some role in the change. Whether or not that kind of change is "good" or "bad" pretty much depends on your own perspective and how it impacts your own life. But, still, given all the hatred raining down on Airbnb, the company quite reasonably felt that it was unfair, given that activity on the platform has contributed in other ways, including city taxes. And that led people to think, "we should highlight the good side of Airbnb," including the taxes. And somewhere around that point, things went off the rails and someone had the awful decision to "highlight" it by acting all entitled about those taxes. When one of the chief criticisms of your startup is that you often act entitled in how you run your business, it's probably not a good idea to post entitled advertisements... especially ones that can be read to be attacking libraries and other public works.
Airbnb, after an initial PR snafu in which it totally didn't realize that people might be offended by such ads, agreed to pull them down. But the raging against Airbnb has continued, and there's at least a decent chance that the campaign has backfired in a massive way, pushing more people to vote for
And that's a problem, because as bad as Airbnb's ads are, Prop F is much, much worse
. Last month, "Emey" posted a pretty thorough discussion on Medium, walking through the bill and explaining why it's really, really bad
. Yes, it's directly targeted at Airbnb, and so Airbnb haters like it. But... they shouldn't. The only parties Prop F really helps are the big hotels. And while I guess some people would like to keep the "tourist element" out of their neighborhoods and apartment buildings, there are lots of other issues with Prop F. A huge concern is the private right of action that allows anyone living within 100 feet of your residence to basically take you to court under accusations that you're violating the law. If you don't think this will be abused by neighbors trying to annoy other neighbors,
you haven't witnessed a neighbor dispute gone bad. It happens all too frequently, and giving people another tool to turn a neighbor dispute into a legal fight is a really bad idea
Airbnb has somewhat exaggerated this private right of action, by claiming that it's about getting neighbors to spy on neighbors, but that's not the really concerning part. It's the legal process that this makes it much easier for neighbors to saddle on other neighbors, even if they're not breaking the law. It's a mess and it will create many more problems between neighbors.
And then there's the separate question of what's so bad about Airbnb. Again, it does have the potential to create some change, but plenty of that change is positive
. It helps subsidize the housing of many people who wouldn't otherwise be able to live in big cities. It has enabled many people to start small businesses or side businesses. It has created real competition for terrible hotels. It enables people to better experience new places outside of the traditional "tourist" hotel setup. In my personal experience, Airbnb has been a tremendous benefit to both hosts and travelers. Are there potential downsides? Absolutely. It can contribute to the changing nature of some neighborhoods. Since some people will stay when otherwise they'd be priced out, it can limit housing supply. Same for some landlords who are using properties solely as short-term rental units. But the real problem with that is overall supply restrictions
in San Francisco (of which there are many -- and, weirdly enough, the same people protesting Airbnb seem to often be in favor of those other supply restrictions).
So, yes, Airbnb's ad campaign was terrible and tone deaf and reeked of entitlement. But don't support Prop F because of it. Prop F is worse. Much worse.