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San Francisco Ballots Turn Up Anger Over the Technical Divide


Signs for and against Prop F, which would restrict the home-sharing service Airbnb. It’s one of many measures in Tuesday’s San Francisco elections. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Bruce Bennett is 52 and has a bum knee in need of surgery. But two Sundays ago he put on a knee brace and huffed his way up steep hills and dozens of stairs to implore residents to vote against a city measure called Proposition F.

“This is probably the heaviest I’ve ever gotten involved in any campaign,” he said.

Proposition F is a new proposal that would cut the supply of short-term home rentals, or, to quote a few of the people who answered their doors for Mr. Bennett, “the Airbnb thing.”

The San Francisco Tenants Union, which backs the measure, has a set of statistics that show that Airbnb — the home-sharing platform where people rent their rooms and houses to strangers — is pushing long-term renters out of the city. Mr. Bennett has a set of anecdotes that illustrate how it is providing the extra income that allows Airbnb hosts like him to stay.

Every year, Californians are asked to decide on a dizzying number of Election Day propositions. On Tuesday, San Francisco voters will weigh in on 11 propositions and candidates for various offices in an election that has essentially become a referendum on the city’s booming technology industry and a vehicle for voters to vent as they seethe over the sky-high housing prices that have come with it.


Bruce Bennett rents out a room in his home and is fighting Proposition F. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Seven of the propositions on the San Francisco ballot are either directly or indirectly related to the technology industry and housing costs. In addition to “the Airbnb thing,” there are two affordable-housing measures and a proposal to help old-line businesses make rent in neighborhoods that are filling up with boutiques and organic restaurants.

“The ballot reflects the tension in San Francisco, where we all agree that there is a housing crisis,” said Scott Wiener, a member of the Board of Supervisors. “There are efforts to meaningfully address the crisis, and efforts to perpetuate bad policy that has gotten us into this crisis in the first place.”

Mr. Wiener was not-so-subtly dismissing Proposition I, an even more contentious proposal that would in effect stop development in the city’s Mission District. Over the last several years, the predominantly Latino neighborhood has seen an influx of young tech workers and the buses from companies like Google and Facebook that chauffeur them to work.

If current trends continue, by 2025, the Hispanic-Latino population segment will fall to about a third of the neighborhood’s overall number of residents, from about half today, according to a city report. Those trends are why the supervisor David Campos, whose office is a few steps down a marble hallway from Mr. Wiener’s, is pushing for an 18-month moratorium on Mission residential construction that is not 100 percent affordable.

The idea has been excoriated by people who fail to see the logic of halting development in a city that desperately needs new housing. But Mr. Campos is undeterred, calling this the “trickle-down housing” theory.

“You can’t just build more luxury housing and expect working and middle-income people to be there,” he said.

San Francisco is an expensive place to live. This was true before the recent technology boom, and the tech boom before that. But the city gets more unaffordable with each up cycle, and it is now nearly as expensive as Manhattan.

The typical San Francisco home is worth $ 1.1 million, up 60 percent from five years ago, according to Zillow. Real estate agents are trying to invent fake neighborhoods like “The Quad” — which includes parts of Noe Valley, the Castro and the Mission — and billionaires are moving onto streets that only a generation ago were middle-class.

Longtime San Franciscans love to debate with the newly arrived as to when, exactly, the city became a playground for the rich. The enduring story of San Francisco is that each new generation of migrants feels as if they are the first people to discover the city’s beauty and its quirks, as well as the first people to discover that lots of other people want to live there, too.

But however and whenever the transformation happened, the days when a regular family could raise children here are probably over. It would take an economic cataclysm — one that would have to be much more severe than a bursting technology bubble — for home prices to get anywhere near affordable.

This election, then, is about what, if anything, can be done about it. Or in some cases, it is just an opportunity for residents to voice their anger.

“Prop F does absolutely nothing,” said Chris Lehane, a Washington political operative who was recently appointed Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs. “There is not a seriousness of purpose behind it, when it comes to actually substantively trying to address affordability.”


Dale Carlson supports Proposition F, which would restrict Airbnb rentals in San Francisco. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Airbnb sits at the hot center of all this. The company was founded in 2008 in San Francisco and is valued higher than the hotel giant Marriott International. Its under-40 founders are billionaires on paper, and its headquarters are full of free snacks and are carefully plotted to mimic actual homes available through the service, such as a camping trailer that doubles as a conference room.

The service also cuts at the heart of San Francisco’s progressive wing, which sees anything that reduces the number of rent-controlled units as a mortal threat. Weary of the city’s staunchly pro-tenant laws, a number of San Francisco property owners now use Airbnb to make money from their vacant units without the hassle of full-time tenants.

The sides debate about how often this happens and whether those landlords would have rented the units to longer-term tenants instead of leaving them vacant. But it is not hard to find a landlord who does this, even though under a city law passed in October 2014, it is illegal for them to rent rooms for short terms that are not inside their primary residence. That is why it is hard to get them to talk about it. That and the fear that if they go on the record, a group of protesters will show up on their doorstep with a drum.

Airbnb rents rooms around the world, so it is less concerned about losing revenue in San Francisco than it is with setting precedent. Proposition F would, among other things, restrict short-term rentals to a maximum of 75 nights per year and would have neighbors reporting on each other for violations. If such a law passes in Airbnb’s hometown, other cities might consider similar restrictions.

Airbnb has spent heavily on the “No on F” campaign. According to reports filed with the San Francisco Ethics Commission, groups supporting the “No on F” campaign have raised over $ 8 million, compared with less than $ 1 million for those backing the “Yes” campaign.

Two weeks ago, the company burned some of its own money on a series of ill-received billboards that said things like: “Dear Parking Enforcement. Please use the $ 12 million in hotel taxes to feed all expired parking meters. Love, Airbnb.”

Many thought the ads, referring to the millions paid by Airbnb hosts to the city, sounded a bit arrogant for a company that had lived in San Francisco for just seven years. But arrogant or not, the “No” campaign is predicted by polls to win in a landslide.

This may explain why Mr. Lehane would not like to talk about his company’s snarky ads. “It was a mistake,” he said. “We’re sorry. We took the billboards down immediately and have moved on.”

Asked to elaborate, he said: “You can ask this a couple times. I’m happy to answer it the same way a couple times.”

A mistake of tone? A mistake of accuracy?

“It was a mistake, and we’re sorry.”

Now even Calvin Welch, a community organizer who is fighting to pass Prop F, thinks Airbnb will win. But if it does, he promises to continue the fight.

“No one on our side really believes we are going to prevail, but I think we have moved the argument in a significant way,” Mr. Welch said. “So the next time we put this on the ballot, and we’re looking to put it on the ballot next year, it will do very well.”


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