Following election win, Airbnb intensifies tech industry's conflict with San Francisco

Failure of two measures to fight effects of tech boom cement Airbnb and entire tech industry's power. Let's hope additional arrogance isn't the biggest takeaway.

Airbnb San Francisco election email bragging
Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

As expected, a pair of ballot measures focused on alleviating the effects of the technology boom on the city of San Francisco were defeated earlier this week. But while the clear-cut victories demonstrate the wide-ranging power and influence of the technology industry in San Francisco and the Bay area, there's a very real danger of using the electoral victories to fuel additional opposition from the community.

The New York Times described the election as a "referendum on the city's booming technology industry," particularly its effect on the sky-high housing prices that have come with it. If that's the case, the tech industry won the referendum convincingly, crushing efforts to restrict Airbnb rentals in the city (Proposition F) and to put a moratorium on luxury housing in San Francisco's Mission District, ground zero for well-off tech workers leading expensive bohemian lifestyles (Proposition I).

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Passions have been running high for months, however, and they're unlikely to dissipate after the election. Airbnb alone spent $8.5 million to defeat Prop. F (eight times what the measure's proponents spent), some which went to fund a misguided ad campaign that the company was forced to retract and apologize for.

After all that, you might hope that the tech industry, and especially Airbnb, would take a conciliatory tone and try to work with the people who might be negatively affected by the rise of short-term rentals in the city. 

Not happening.

Instead, Airbnb seems to be channeling its inner Uber, crowing about its victory in a smarmy, self-satisfied email sent to San Francisco users of its services. Here's the text:

Subject: Tonight, we defeated Prop. F

Dear _______,

The ballots are in, the results have been tallied, and Proposition F has been defeated. As a result, home sharing will continue in San Francisco. That means middle class families will continue to be able to pay their bills, and you can still help visitors to our hometown experience this great city like locals.

This is your victory. You made it happen. You knocked on doors, made phone calls, and attended hundreds of hearings and rallies. You told your stories, made your case, and you prevailed. And this victory proves what our community can do when we work together and fight for what we believe in. You showed that home sharing is both a community and a movement.

So thank you for all your hard work, and for standing up for what we all believe in.

Your courage and determination inspires us every day.


Chris Lehane

Global Head of Public Policy

Oh my lord! After the tone-deaf ad campaign pissed everyone off, you'd think someone at the company would have the sensitivity to dial back the rhetoric a tiny bit. But Lehane, a Washington political operative and former aide to Bill Clinton, is going the other way, explaining in a press conference that he hopes to emulate the organizing tactics of the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, and the National Education Association to raise the company's influence. For example, the company said it plans to help create 100 "home-sharing clubs" across the country to help its users fight regulatory crackdowns.

I'm sure that Airbnb has the resources to make a difference. As Lehane put it, "We'll spend what it takes to succeed."

But the tech industry's effect on the communities it inhabits is a bigger issue than just Airbnb rentals. The anger of long-time locals being priced out of their own neighborhoods is very real, and listening to fabulously wealthy tech execs fire what the New York Times called "a warning shot to other cities thinking about proposing new regulations" is unlikely to assuage their unhappiness.

The technology industry is ascendant around the world, and is particularly powerful in the Bay Area. But it would do well to temper its arrogance and show some awareness and compassion for the harm and disruption it can cause, not just to its competitors but to regular people caught in the crossfire. In the long run, it may be smarter to turn opponents into friends instead of turning everyone who's not an insider into enemies.

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