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An Assault on Reason: Airbnb Defeats Proposition F

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An Assault on Reason: Airbnb Defeats Proposition F

Airbnb defeated Proposition F by combining mass advertising with crowd politics. It gave $8 million to political groups opposing it, then mobilized all the hosts and renters living in the city to convince their friends and neighbors.

When I read the news about the way Airbnb fought and finally defeated proposition F in San Francisco last week, I immediately thought about “The Assault on Reason”, Al Gore’s book from 2007. In it, he argues that campaign money alone, especially when spent on media and advertisement, can decide the outcome of any election.

In a message to the readers, published on Amazon’s website, Gore says, “Today, reason is under assault by forces using sophisticated techniques such as propaganda, psychology, and electronic mass media.”

On Nov. 2 (election day in the United States) San Franciscans went to the polls to vote, among other things, on Proposition F, known as the “Airbnb Initiative.”

The main argument in favor of the proposed rules was the belief that short-term rentals are hurting the city’s already limited housing supply.

Airbnb listings in San Francisco — Source: Inside Airbnb

Proposition F was not intended to close the Airbnb rentals in the city. Its proponents were asking to reduce the number of nights a host could rent out a room or property to 75 on all forms of short-term rental, and force Airbnb (and other internet rental sites) to disclose that information to the city. Current rules place no limits no limits to the number of nights per year a unit can be rented if the resident is present.

The proposed rules would have forced Airbnb and similar platforms to submit quarterly reports to the San Francisco Planning Department detailing which nights each unit was rented out and, most importantly, which nights the host occupied the unit. The proposition also sought to ban the use of in-law units — which are often created by adding a bathroom and kitchen to a basement or garage — for short-term rentals, many of them already illegal by city rules.

What Airbnb did to defeat Proposition F was a perfect example of how to combine mass advertising with crowd politics. It gave $8 million to political groups opposing Proposition F, then mobilized all the hosts and renters living in the city to convince their friends and neighbors.

According to Airbnb, San Francisco collects around $12 million a year in hotel tax from the Airbnb short-rental business, and the company was quick to emphasize that fact on billboards around the city as part of its campaign.

Ads such as the following appeared at many bus stops and on billboards:

  • “Please use $12 million in hotel taxes to feed all expired parking meters.”
  • “We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to put escalators on all the hills.”
  • “We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later.”
  • “Please use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep music in schools.”

After some backlash from residents and city officials, Airbnb took down the ads and issued an apology.

“The intent was to show the hotel tax contribution from our hosts and guests, which is roughly $1 million per month. It was the wrong tone and we apologize to anyone who was offended. These ads are being taken down immediately,” said Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty.

Airbnb also ran ads on its website aimed at San Francisco residents. Whenever a guest with a local IP address used the site it was presented with ads such as this:

What Airbnb and Uber have become are multibillion-dollar companies without owning a single hotel or taxi, or having a single driver or host employed by them. They have lured local drivers and residents into make a living by breaking existing regulations. Uber and Airbnb constantly avoid disclosing the hosts and drivers to the authorities and have fueled an underground economy, whether local laws allow their business or not.

“Look at its historical game plan: It’s sort of an ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’ approach to moving into cities,” says Mike Issac in The New York Times. “Airbnb starts up widely in an area — San Francisco, for instance — and gets to a large enough scale that renting out one’s home starts to become a normal thing. Perhaps people even support it publicly, or at least rave about it to their friends.

“What is the lesson here? There will be a lot more of this type of thing from this type of company. Just look at Uber, which seems to have perfected the art of bum-rushing cities, then becoming a much-loved necessity to the population.”

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