Yes on F: Protections as (Not) Seen on TV

by TJ Johnston

The ballot proposition to regulate short-term housing rentals will turn neighbors against each other, fuel frivolous lawsuits and publicize your private information.

Or, at least those are the images of Orwellian surveillance and compromised privacy conjured from the No on Prop F campaign’s slick TV commercials. To keep the San Francisco measure from passing on November 3, hosting platform Airbnb is digging deep into its $8.5 million war chest and filling the airwaves—and voters’ minds—with dystopian visions.

If Prop F passes, it would add teeth to an existing City ordinance that was passed last year. Short-term rentals would be limited to 75 days per year (down from current limit of 90), registration with the City’s Planning Department would be required, and residents must prove that they are authorized to rent out the units. It would also require Airbnb and similar companies to list only those registered units in their online ads.

Under Prop F, affected neighbors and housing nonprofits would have legal recourse against bad actors and hold hosting platforms accountable.

However, in its advertisements, Airbnb—under the moniker of “SF for Everyone, No on Prop F, sponsored and major funding by Airbnb”—stretches the definition of the measure’s requirements to the point of distortion. Images of people spying through binoculars and shadowed fingers inputting information onto a computer figure prominently in those spots.

Exactly what “private” information would the City collect? According to the Planning Department’s application for short-term rentals, those registrants would have to apply with proof of residence, a state-issued ID, a business license from the Treasurer and Tax Collector’s office, and a $50 check to the Planning Department. A copy of the lease is also required if that applicant is a tenant.

That’s no more information than that needed to run any other business in San Francisco, or what isn’t already publicly available. One could argue that the SF Human Services Agency is more intrusive in asking homeless people for the last four digits of their Social Security numbers and finger images before granting them access to shelters and drop-in centers.

As for the hypothetical discord among neighbors, anybody living within 100 feet of a short-term rental is empowered to sue violators. This includes people living in the same building. Housing nonprofits—for example, the Housing Rights Committee, San Francisco—would also have legal standing where hosts act as scofflaws.

Under current law, the City has 90 days to act on a complaint. Since February 1, the Planning Department’s compliance division saw 177 complaints filed, but only 50 of those cases were resolved. The division has so far fined nine violators for a total of $155,000. Sara Shortt, executive director of Housing Rights Committee, said that litigation would be used as a last resort if the City couldn’t enforce its own laws, and with the lax enforcement so far, it could very well be necessary.

“Lawsuits are how we protect our rights when the government won’t help,” she wrote in a recent Medium post, citing actions against Big Tobacco and Enron as example.

What Prop F’s opponents omitted in their exaggerated claims is that Airbnb and other hosting companies can be sued for violating the law and are liable for a $1,000-per-day fine during the time of unlawful operation.

Another broad interpretation of language concerns what is commonly called “in-law” units: These are merely smaller, separate units within or attached to a larger housing structure, but with their own entrances. In the City’s legalese, they are called “accessory dwelling units.” These units are not covered by the measure, nor are City-owned or managed properties, or those reserved for affordable housing.

But No on Prop F exploits any misunderstanding of the familial and residential definitions of the term “in-law” in its advertising. One commercial shows an older male-female couple walking hand in hand, implying these people are someone’s spouse’s parents. A voiceover suggests that Prop F would ban in-law units, sometimes to one’s own in-law family.

This conflation of dwellings with marital relatives could confuse voters on the measure’s intent. Prop F only excepts certain living spaces; nothing in the ordinance would suggest kicking out a spouse’s family.

Another commercial shows former Mayor Gavin Newsom on camera praising the people of San Francisco for, “finding ways to change the world; that’s who we are.” But he added, “Prop F will block the City from improving the law.” Such a statement assumes that City laws have no legislative or electoral redress, if deemed faulty. To change or repeal a voter-approved ordinance, it must be put on the ballot for voters to decide. Also, the Board of Supervisors can amend its previously passed laws.

Supporters gathered enough signatures to place Prop F on the ballot after Supervisor David Campos’ efforts to reform the ordinance in the legislative process were stalled. This would refute any claim that City law is inflexible and written in stone.

Ideally, ballot measures should be judged on their own merits rather than by well-funded advertising campaigns, and it’s possible for voters to recognize Prop F as a viable way to preserve rent-controlled housing and ensure that corporations play by the rules. The Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes the Street Sheet, recommends a yes vote on Prop F.