Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Divides over the city’s housing crisis rose to an electoral boiling point Tuesday.
UPDATE, WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 4: This post originally appeared on Monday, November 2, and has been updated to include the results of the ballots.
In a significant victory for Airbnb, Proposition F lost 55 percent to 45 percent. Proposition I, the Mission moratorium, lost 57 percent to 43 percent. Proposition A passed with about 73 percent of the vote. Here’s what was at stake.
Proposition F: The “Airbnb thing”
The days when a “regular” family could move to San Francisco and expect to stay are probably over, as The New York Times put it this morning. Last May, the median home price in the city hit a record $1.225 million. Average one-bedroom apartments hover around $3,100. It’s no wonder that, across the Bay Area, low- and middle-income families are getting priced out of their longtime homes.
Airbnb likes to argue that its effect on the housing-short city is a net positive: Renting out apartments or spare bedrooms lets “hosts” bring in some extra revenue, and thereby avoid displacement.
Some city supervisors*, however, sharply disagree. A May 2014 report requested by San Francisco Supervisor David Campos found that between 925 and 1,960 housing units are sitting vacant simply to be rented out on Airbnb (or FlipKey, VRBO, or other online rental platforms)—exacerbating the city’s housing crisis.
Officials have attempted to stem the Airbnb effect. A law passed in October 2014 capped the number of nights “hosts” could rent out their units at 90, but compliance has been low and enforcement strategies weak.
Prop. F changes the cap to 75 nights per year. It also requires hosts and platforms to report more information to the city about their operations; If a host exceeds the 75-night cap, for example, he’s prohibited from listing his unit. The measure also empowers neighbors and non-profits to seek legal action against violators.
Such restrictions would not tear too large a hole in Airbnb’s pockets, which bulge with revenues from rentals all over the world. But the company is concerned about other cities following the precedent, should Prop. F pass. The city of Santa Monica has already passed stringent limits on short-term rentals, and Los Angeles officials have made noise towards similar ends. Airbnb has invested heavily in attacking Prop. F. (These ads are not to be confused with the company’s PR fail last month, a passive-aggressive attempt to highlight its “contributions” to civic life.)
Prop. F pass seems unlikely to pass, and and it is worth questioning whether a ballot initiative is the best way to address the effects of Airbnb and its ilk, regardless of these businesses’ relative merits and harms. In its 2015 voter guide, SPUR, a local think-tank focused on planning and governance issues, writes against Prop. F from that very angle:
Current regulations on short-term rentals have been on the books for less than a year and will likely be adjusted and improved as the city gathers data and learns more about how short-term rentals affect the city. Passage of Prop. F would prevent that from happening by locking in regulations that could only be changed by another lengthy, difficult, and costly ballot measure process.
Proposition I: A moratorium in the Mission
Heart right, head wrong: That’s the story with this measure, which would institute an 18- to 30-month moratorium on any housing development in the Mission that is not 100 percent affordable. It would also require the city to create a “Neighborhood Stabilization Plan” by January 2017.
A historically lower-income Latino neighborhood, the Mission District is in some ways ground zero in the city’s displacement crisis. A 2014 report by the Mission Economic Development Agency found that the number of Latinos in the neighborhood has dropped by nearly a third since 2000, largely the result of no-fault evictions. Halting development, as Prop. I suggests, could drive down values on some sites in the neighborhood, giving the city an opportunity to build affordable housing.
“If things continue the way they are, the community, the neighborhood, will change to the point where it's no longer recognizable,” David Campos, a city supervisor leading Prop. I, told VICE.
But as CityLab has pointed out before, new development has never really been the Mission’s problem. Since 2000, the neighborhood has seen fewer than 100 new units added per year. If anything, it’s the lack of development that’s pushing longtime residents out—all over the city, supply does not meet demand. As my colleague Kriston Capps put it, San Francisco is in a housing drought. Which leads me to…
Proposition A: The housing bond that may not go far enough
$310 million for affordable housing: That’s what Mayor Ed Lee is asking voters to approve, in hopes of fulfilling his pledge to build 30,000 units of housing, “with at least one-third of those permanently affordable to low- and moderate-income families, and the majority of those within financial reach of working, middle-income San Franciscans.”
Some housing advocates say it doesn’t go far enough to help those families, since, after land acquisition and construction costs, only a small chunk of the bond will be left to actually build new units. Still, there’s been little vocal opposition to the proposition, which will require a supermajority to pass as it may eventually require a tax increase.
Certainly, there is no one way out of the sticky problems San Francisco has found its way into. Lee’s bond will throw a life preserver to at least some San Franciscans at risk of displacement, and to generations ahead. Retrofitting existing public housing and investing far more in new affordable development will also help. But for an expensive small city with a booming job market, supply will probably never meet demand—no matter how people vote this week.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly suggested that the city of San Francisco opposes Airbnb’s stance. In fact, these are the views of some city supervisors.