Get tough with defiant disrupters

Pub date August 6, 2013

EDITORIAL It may sometimes seem like we at the Bay Guardian don’t like the technology industry, but nothing could be further from the truth. We tweet, click, post, and share, playing with all the hot new tech toys that spring from the innovative minds of Bay Area residents. This is an important sector of the local economy, one that often empowers people who were just getting by to remain in expensive San Francisco.

Yes, we do regularly criticize tech (and some of its biggest neoliberal cheerleaders in City Hall), as we do to Airbnb, Lyft, and other so-called “shareable economy” companies in this issue. But that’s only because we strongly believe in open and transparent discussions about public policy and the needs of city residents.

And frankly, that’s not happening these days.

Instead of engaging directly and honestly with the people and our elected representatives, Airbnb has chosen to duck its obligations to the city of its birth and dodge attempts to create a public dialogue about its dangerously flawed business model. Same thing with Lyft, another company that acts as if it’s entitled to undermine civic institutions without so much as a public conversation first.

Yes, these companies have come up with cool ideas that have become popular with Bay Area residents. In a city where it was tough to find a cab on Saturday nights, Lyft made it easier to find rides and allowed people to make some extra cash off their cars. Airbnb was also a great idea that makes travel cheaper and more personal.

The beauty of these ideas is their simplicity — but that is also their main flaw, because San Francisco isn’t a simple city. It’s a complex, dynamic city with difficult landlord-tenant dynamics, and a congested city that tries to achieve the right balance of cabs on the roadways, both systems that are the products of decades-long struggles that have spawned reams of regulations.

These tech-savvy fortune hunters, who don’t understand or appreciate that history, think it’s enough to have a good idea and some rich venture capitalists willing to back it. They espouse vaguely libertarian ideas about “disruptive” technologies empowering people, but then they wait for government officials to solve the problems with their business models, raking in millions of dollars in profits in the meantime and delaying their day of public reckoning as long as possible.

For example, in a May interview on KQED’s Forum, Airbnb’s David Hantman was asked why the company was defying a city ruling that it must pay the transient occupancy tax, he said they were waiting for the city to adopt a new regulatory structure first.

That’s not an acceptable or defensible position, and it is only continuing because Mayor Ed Lee has publicly supported the company’s defiance of city law and rulings. Mr. Mayor, if these are the types of “jobs” you’re creating — part time jobs with no benefits in an underground economy that cannibalizes other industries, breaks city laws, and won’t pay local taxes — then this city is in real trouble.

We’re happy to see Board President David Chiu trying to solve Airbnb’s problems, but he needs the support of other top city officials who are willing to put pressure on the company to bargain in good faith. And yes, we’re talking to Mayor Lee, Tax Collector Jose Cisneros, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera, among others.

If you make the city appear impotent to enforce its own laws or too willing to go easy on wealthy corporations, it will only embolden more young opportunists to disrupt the city’s regulatory authority and its social fabric. You work for us, not the venture capitalists, and it’s time to show some spine.