Tilting at the Age of Disruption -- Chap. 2
Disruption was their mantra, and they meant to do it by any means necessary, legal or not. Local laws and regulations were no match for a seemingly unlimited flow of venture capital, particularly when it was coming from rich and powerful people who were also willing to invest in the careers of San Francisco politicians. Besides, government was the problem and not the solution, right?
That's what President Reagan had said way back when, and it was what "godfather of the Silicon Valley" Ron Conway had believed when he was still a declared Republican, and he still believed it after he came to San Francisco with his billions, millions of it spread among hundreds of tech start-ups, looking to seize the city from the progressives.
So arose Uber and Lyft, taking aim at the regulated taxi industry, which was already struggling to provide drivers with a decent income while fending off the Yellow Cab monopoly. So came Airbnb, giving landlords a way to rent rooms outside of the complicated compromise regulations developed over decades of battles with tenant groups. And so came the rest of the companies that sail under the banner of the “sharing economy,” that neoliberal euphemism dressed in the trappings of environmental and economic empowerment.
But Conway's real aim was to crush the progressive movement of San Francisco, a goal he stated publicly and executed by becoming the biggest fundraiser for Mayor Ed Lee and his agenda of serving and elevating the technology sector at any cost. Twitter got over $50 million in tax breaks and then the city's entire technology industry had its taxes slashed by a citywide business tax reform measure.
The Guardian was the only newspaper in town regularly questioning why an industry that was swimming in billions of dollars in capital needed millions more from San Francisco taxpayers, who were already being hit with rising rents, eviction notices, and gentrification that was driving up the cost of their burritos and beers and everything else.
At first, tech-savvy city dwellers didn't seem to notice the hidden costs of these new disruptions, which did have some obvious benefits, from more easily catching a ride to finding odd jobs. During the Great Recession, triggered by Wall Street adventurism and complicity in the real estate industry, times were hard and it was great to use Airbnb to make some extra money hosting visiting tourists.
I made thousands of dollars through Airbnb in 2010, first by renting out my apartment during the two weeks I spent at Burning Man that year, then by continuing to occasionally do so, staying with my girlfriend for a few days or a week at a time and splitting the proceeds with her. It was so easy that it seemed almost too good to be true. And it was.
When I heard from some tenant activist friend that what I was doing wasn't actually legal in San Francisco, I investigated and found they were right: short-term rentals violated city laws, and so did subletting my apartment for more than I paid daily in rent. So I wrote a cover story for the Guardian called “The Problem with the Sharing Economy,” mixing my experiences and investigation of Airbnb with reporting on other aspects of this disruptive new economic sector.
That was the beginning of two years of journalistic jousting that I did with Airbnb. Well, maybe it's more accurate to say that I was jousting at them, like Don Quixote tilting at the windmills, except that my targets really were giants -- economic behemoths worth billions of dollars, despite their folksy populist appeal.
I broke the story about how Airbnb and its hosts had simply ignored a city ruling that they needed to start collecting and paying the 15 percent hotel tax on these transactions, scofflaw behavior that had continued for more than a year, dodging a tax obligation to the city of about $10 million per year.
The audacity offended my sense of justice, and when they shamelessly ignored my ongoing inquiries, I just beat the drum even harder. I showed up at photo op events to hound Mayor Lee over why the city wasn't enforcing its own laws and rulings, and I highlighted how Conway had significant investments in both Lee and Airbnb.
But to critics who derided my quest as delusional, these were just windmills, and I was almost alone in seeing them as dangerous giants tromping through my city, at least until the damage was done. National and foreign journalists recognized and amplified my stories — including a German public television crew that did a long story on my findings — but they were largely ignored by other journalists in San Francisco, the city where Airbnb was headquartered.
It felt like I was going crazy, a sense that was aggravated by the trolls on our SFBG.com website, who were quick to attack or dismiss everything I wrote. Our online comments sections became poisonous snake pits and many regular Guardian readers urged me to kill them, something that I resisted because at least they were lively and showed that people were reading our stories. By the time I finally shut it off, in August 2014, the Guardian was always dying from countless bites.
But as the displacement and evictions crises in the city reached critical mass in the public consciousness, problems exacerbated by the more than 5,000 homes taken off the rental market by Airbnb, mainstream journalists and politicians caught up to my coverage and created a controversial and ineffective new regulatory system for short-term housing rentals.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the legislation at its last hearing before the Bay Guardian was suddenly disrupted, leaving other media voices (and mine, one more time, in a new venue) to sort out the aftermath. The Guardian was dead and so was my long and idealistic newspaper career.