Every time I think the housing crisis has reached its reductio ad absurdum (that’s Latin for ‘bloody stupid’) it goes to another level. Until last night, I’d never stayed with Airbnb. Of all the times in all the places to start! I’ve just returned from a meeting of the San Francisco ‘Board of Supervisors’ (i.e. the local council) which was debating putting legislative restrictions on Airbnb because it’s exacerbating the city’s housing crisis. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but of course when you do, it’s obvious that a popular source of short-term lets has the potential to reduce the availability of permanent rented homes. Local campaigners and politicians are saying Airbnb is just another mechanism of displacement.
The San Francisco housing market is currently on steroids. As in Seattle, nearby high-tech industries like Google are dragging in young people with lots of money who want to live in the city. I’ve heard anecdotes of homes being bought, sometimes way above the usual asking price, in cash. To make my personal guilt worse, I’m staying in the Mission district which has historically been a working class neighbourhood with a diverse population, but particularly a centre for the Latino community. According to a life-long Mission resident I met last night, the property feeding-frenzy is changing the area beyond recognition. To add insult to the loss of affordable housing and local businesses, some of the corporations are now laying on a private, luxury shuttle bus service – complete with coffee and wifi – that picks their staff up from the Mission and takes them out to Silicon Valley. Like in the Lower East Side, it seems people with lots of money want to live in, but not with, poor neighbourhoods.
In to this familiar scene of working class communities struggling for survival steps Airbnb. It was a politician from the Mission who was leading the call at City Hall today for Airbnb ‘hosts’ to be prevented from letting their homes for more than 60 nights a year and requiring them to comply with regulations that might be expected of others providing a similar service (including paying taxes).
San Francisco is a spectacular city that people want to visit and for a few, an increasingly wealthy one. It’s not hard to see how Airbnb may, even unwittingly on the part of some of the hosts (and guests!) be making life harder for some. The local politician today quoted an estimate of 5,000 Airbnbs registered in the city, reducing the available permanent rented housing stock by about 2,000 homes, approximately 20% in the Mission. There are, as ever, stories of serious abuse, with long-term tenants being evicted so landlords can cash-in on the lucrative and comparatively hassle-free, flexible and ungoverned income from Airbnb. (I should add that a lot of private renting in San Francisco is subject to rent controls.)
I discussed the situation with my own hosts, long time Mission residents and they correctly described the situation as ‘nuanced’. For them and others like them (many of whom were at the council meeting) Airbnb is a means of subsidising modest income, or perhaps even making ends meet sufficient to stay in the area. This needs to be balanced against the fact that Airbnb, despite its cozy, folksy image, is now a $20 billion global business. According to another councillor, apparently its lobbyists were ‘crawling all over’ City Hall to prevent the potential restrictions on their profits – and they succeeded, at least for now. There is the possibility that the issue will now be put to a referendum.
This is a city that first attracted white settlers and grew rich during the Gold Rush. History is repeating itself.