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Airbnb's Political Buyout 

Wednesday, May 4 2016
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When two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — irked by the thousands of San Francisco housing units listed on Airbnb in violation of a 14-month-old local law "regulating" short-term rentals, yet still available to book — announced the possibility of holding "home-share" companies to account for their "hosts' " unlawful behavior, Airbnb was ready.

On April 22, a few days before Supervisors Aaron Peskin and David Campos floated the idea of charging Airbnb $1,000 per day per scofflaw listing — but the same day Airbnb learned of the potential problem via a press inquiry — Airbnb started writing checks, to other politicians.

Through a campaign effort called The Committee to Expand the Middle Class, Airbnb doled out $27,500 to nine of the apparatchiks and political insiders seeking seats on the Democratic County Central Committee, which runs the local Democratic Party. Airbnb's choices include one of Mayor Ed Lee's press secretaries, a Google lawyer, and a lobbyist for the Apartment Association.

Then the big checks came out. Airbnb gave $10,000 to a ballot measure sponsored by Supervisor Malia Cohen seeking to beef up police oversight. $20,000 went to a campaign committee called Progress San Francisco, which bought mail ads for the same DCCC candidates mentioned above — and then Airbnb dropped $100,000 each on a public safety bond backed by Lee and Board of Supervisors President London Breed; and on a bond for parks backed by Supervisor Mark Farrell.

Airbnb has been a big political spender before. Last year, the company spent more than $9 million on local elections — but that was directly used to defeat Prop. F, the ballot measure that would have severely restricted the platform. This recent round of political capital makes Airbnb one of the biggest spenders in San Francisco elections — and for the low-turnout June primary election, no less.

In a boilerplate, one-line statement also offered to other media, an Airbnb spokeswoman said the cash shower "is one part of our growing effort to stand with those who fight for the middle class in San Francisco." She did not respond to further inquiries. In a similarly brief email, Mary Jung, chairwoman of the DCCC and one of the recipients of a $5,000 check, said, "We appreciate all of the support we receive, from small donors to San Francisco-based innovators like Airbnb." She also did not respond to other inquiries.

To Peskin, this is all about Airbnb investing in its own future. If he and Campos succeed in passing tougher rules for the company, Airbnb just happened to write checks to supervisors — Breed, Cohen, and Farrell (who was dinged by 48 Hills for possibly phoning Airbnb himself to ask for the check, something that may run afoul of local campaign finance law) — it wants to rely on to sustain a mayoral veto of those rules.

"They are supplicants, and they are doing everything in their power to have a Board of Supervisors that votes their way," Peskin said. "Any way you look at it, this is political bullying."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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