Haunting Airbnb

By Nicholas Kimura

Throughout the months leading up to the November 3 election, voters were bombarded with advertisements on television, radio, social media, and their mailboxes urging them to vote “NO” on Proposition F, a ballot measure designed to verify and regulate residential vacation rentals. Messages ranged from the ominous, dark warnings that neighbors would turn on each other to the light, mocking ads which dictated how San Francisco should spend the supposed millions of hotel tax dollars from these vacation rentals. Airbnb was a leader in this opposition to Prop F, spending well over $8 million to fight the ballot measure, saturating every available space with their messages. Proponents of the proposition, comprised of tenant right groups, affordable housing advocates, and community organizations who work with low-income and homeless individuals and families, were far outspent in their campaign to vote “YES” on F. The proponents had far fewer political and corporate connections, and in order to even stand a chance at the ballot, they needed to be creative, fierce, and unrelenting. These characteristics were on full display when advocates and activists stormed Airbnb’s headquarters, a “shared” environment in a techie haven.

On the afternoon of November 9, a group of nearly 100 people slowly, silently, and secretly walked into the Airbnb offices at 888 Brannan. Inside the main gallery, a modern, elaborate atrium with large balconies surrounding the view up to an enormous glass ceiling, flanked by a towering, dark stone wall covered in ivy growing towards the sun, the protestors awaited. Sitting inconspicuously, scattered throughout the sprawling wood paneled lobby, reading magazines and checking smartphones, they waited for the party to arrive. To most people there, it was a normal lunchtime—nothing awry. When watching the security guards, however, one could see them pacing nervously, constantly speaking into their walkie-talkies, eyes jutting to person to person, aware of an impending menace. They began to question people, lock doors, and call for back up. But it was too late. The specter that haunted Airbnb had arrived.

There was no initial sound, no initial chant or song—nothing to preface the action about to occur. The emotions of those affected by the exorbitant rents, evictions, and displacement caused by Airbnb were not yet palpable. Their fears, misgivings, frustration, and fury were still not evident. It was a normal afternoon in a techie haven.

When black-clad individuals proudly marched into the atrium holding black balloons in their hands, there was still no ruckus, still no rage. When they came to the middle of the lobby, sun-shining down upon them, people glancing in wonder, security guards nervously grumbling to each other. There were no howls, no cheers, and no chants. All was still.

Without hesitation, the black-clad individuals threw down their belongings, unfurled the rolled red papers tied to the balloon strings, and let the balloons go. Watching to balloons drift above was an incredible sight to see: dozens of balloons slowly floating upwards toward the towering glass ceiling above, tied to their strings small, red houses adorned with messages for Airbnb executives. Higher and higher they went until they stopped, perched in the vast openness of the atrium. “HOMELESSNESS: Love, Airbnb,” “DISPLACEMENT: Love, Airbnb,” “EVICTIONS: Love, Airbnb” decorated the tiny levitating homes. Cheers erupted, people clapped, chanted, and screamed towards the rafters above for all the people in their offices to hear. Finally, the caboose and most obvious of the party arrived: the Brass Liberation Orchestra (BLO), a full-fledged brass band focused on social and economic justice.

On the three floors of balconies encircling the lobby, workers began to gather. People poured out of their offices, streamed away from meetings, and took their eyes off of the ubiquitous smartphone screens to witness the action. Many were clearly confused at first, but once they could read the writing on the houses, the message was clear: Airbnb is destroying our community.

While the houses floated and swayed gently in the artificially created breeze of the atrium, protesters gathered around the BLO to dance, sing, and convene in the heart of the beast. To truly create a shared environment, pizza, vegan food, and cake were brought out for all to enjoy. Drinks were served, utensils provided, and a community was able to congregate.

Armed with a loudspeaker, activists from Causa Justa::Just Cause, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, Eviction Free SF, the Plaza 16 Coalition, the San Francisco Tenants Union, TGI Justice, and the Housing Rights Committee began their speeches. There were rallying cries against the “pay to play” corruption perpetuated by companies like Airbnb. People spoke about the clear, evident role companies like Airbnb have in the crisis of homelessness experienced by thousands of families, disabled folks, youth, and women. Many present were affected by the “sharing” economy Airbnb so proudly touts, speaking of experiences of displacement and evictions to accommodate Airbnb units. People spoke of the thousands of housing units used as vacation rentals instead of homes. People were there to speak of how this economy is tearing our neighborhoods apart.

Orations echoed throughout the atrium and down the cavernous hallways. After every speaker a round of applause and cheers from supporters. Everyone who wanted to speak was afforded that chance. Everyone who wanted to eat was fed. Reporters and news cameras, long present but barred from entering the building, finally came in to bring the messages to peoples’ TV screens. The denizens of San Francisco were able to witness and share in this action.

After several hours of speeches and song, the final speaker, an organizer of the action, came to the mic. She thanked all of those present, invited all for some last bites, and led us in one last chant in solidarity to close out the day. Trash was collected and disposed of, signs taken down, and protesters marched out chanting, “Stop the evictions!” All that remained were the balloons and red houses with their distinct messages to the city and Airbnb, floating above and swinging silently in the sunlit atrium.

On November 3, Proposition F was defeated. Opponents spent more than 20 times the budget of the grassroots organizations and community members who mounted the opposition. The City still has unenforceable laws and constant displacement due to people valuing tourists over tenants. This will surely continue. The struggle against this ruthless capitalism, however, is much harder to beat. No number of ballot defeats, of crooked politicians, of laws enabling the destruction of housing will slow our struggle. In fact, the opposite is true: There is still a specter haunting Airbnb. The community is that specter.