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Hotel Workers are Fighting Airbnb. Why aren't Hotels? 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2015
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When Patrick Hannan delivers a line, he states it twice. Slowly. "This is an arrow from New York hotels into the heart of San Francisco's middle class," he said by phone on Monday. "This is an arrow from New York hotels into the heart of San Francisco's middle class."

As the spokesman for the No on Proposition F campaign, the Airbnb-funded fight to defeat a ballot measure that would strictly regulate short-term rentals, Hannan is prone to hyperbole. In a recent radio interview with KALW, he intoned, "Under Prop. F, San Francisco will be the only government in the world tracking where you sleep at night. Not Syria, not North Korea, not the Taliban, but San Francisco."

The aforementioned arrow in the heart of San Francisco is a $25,000 check from the Hotel Association of New York City, paid to the Yes on Prop. F campaign less than two weeks before Election Day, according to campaign finance filings. (The donation was originally reported as $250,000, but the filing was later amended.)

The Hotel Association's check is the clearest evidence yet of a narrative Airbnb has started pushing in the final days of this bitter campaign.

"Prop. F is a hotel-backed measure that is falsely drawing a line between regular San Franciscans sharing their homes and a decades-long housing crisis," Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty told Refinery29 in the aftermath of the short-term rental platform's disastrous ad campaign touting the hotel tax revenues it generates for the city. (Nulty declined to be interviewed for this story.)

But apart from the Hotel Association's last-minute check, examples of the hotel industry's involvement in Prop. F are hard to come by. On Oct. 5, the Yes on F campaign received 10 $1000 donations from 10 different hotels, all owned by San Francisco-based hotelier Lawrence Lui's Stanford Hotels. And in late September, the campaign reported an in-kind donation valued at $25,000 from 144 King Street Associates LLC, the development company behind a planned hotel across the street from AT&T Park. (According to the Yes on F campaign, neither donation was solicited, and the in-kind donation paid for a "Yes on F" line item on an unaffiliated slate card. Neither Lui nor 144 King Street Associates responded to inquiries.)

$35,000 isn't pocket change, but it pales in comparison to the more than $8 million Airbnb has spent to defeat Prop. F. The lack of investment belies the results of an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, which reported this summer that the hotel industry — led by national trade group the American Hotel & Lodging Association — spent $11 million in state-level elections in 2014 and has been aggressively pushing for the regulation of short-term rental platforms like Airbnb.

Prop. F is largely funded by Unite Here Local 2, the hotel workers' union, rather than corporate behemoths such as Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood, and Marriott. And while Unite Here Local 2 and its parent union have ponied up $390,000 in support of the measure, they've obviously been outgunned by Airbnb's venture capital. (Disclosure: I worked for Unite Here Local 2 from November 2009 to January 2014. I was not involved in any work regarding Airbnb or short-term rentals.)

So why haven't San Francisco hotels gone for Airbnb's jugular? After all, short-term rentals directly compete with hotels, and do so for a fraction of the costly labor and overhead incurred by this city's largely unionized hotels.

"We do think of them as being a competitor," says Kevin Carroll, executive director of the San Francisco Hotel Council — the West Coast counterpoint to the Hotel Association of NYC. Carroll says the Hotel Council was involved in pushing for the 2014 David Chiu-authored legislation that legalized short-term rentals, because hotels want Airbnb to collect and remit the same 14 percent hotel tax they have to. With that "level playing field" in place, Carroll says, the Council decided to remain neutral on Prop. F. "Regulatory compliance is really where we're focused."

Indeed, some of the local industry's behavior toward Airbnb has been positively cozy. In July, Airbnb joined the San Francisco Travel Association (previously the Convention and Visitors Bureau), making San Francisco the first city to formally welcome the startup into its tourism machinery.

With room rates high ($397 per night on average, according to Bloomberg) and demand so great that Dreamforce rented a cruise ship to house some of its convention attendees last month, it's possible San Francisco's hotels simply don't feel threatened by Airbnb.

That's not the case for the hotel workers' union.

"Hotel workers are doubly affected by short-term rentals," says Ian Lewis, a spokesman for Local 2. "Airbnb drives up our housing costs and undercuts our jobs." Lewis estimates that Airbnb has cost San Francisco 400 hotel jobs.

The union has been trying to get the hotels to do more to support the campaign, at least behind the scenes. When Local 2 scheduled a midday Yes on Prop. F rally in Union Square for Oct. 22 (the rally was subsequently postponed and rescheduled for Oct. 29), the union asked hotel managers in the neighborhood to "accommodate" workers using their lunch hour to leave the premises and attend, Lewis says.

According to Peter Kwan, an Airbnb host who founded Homesharers of San Francisco, at least one hotel company was happy to comply.

Kwan obtained an email from Pebblebrook Hotel Trust, a real estate investment trust that owns seven San Francisco hotels, including the unionized Sir Francis Drake, that instructed managers to attend the rally and allow Sir Francis Drake workers to attend as well.

"Please join us in the effort to support Prop. F. We feel very strongly about this and your participation is critical. This is a big deal and the rally is important... Please be willing to give the employees time off to attend," the email, from Jennifer Williams, vice president for asset management, reads. Williams did not respond to a request from SF Weekly to verify the emails.

Kwan says the email "reveals that Prop. F is a hotel-backed campaign," and has filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging that Pebblebrook's actions comprise an in-kind contribution that must be reported.

But Lewis isn't apologizing. "I wish more hotels would back Prop. F," he says, but right now, Airbnb's claims that the hotel industry is driving Prop. F are "just another lie."

"This is a hotel worker-backed campaign," he says. "A corporation that can't distinguish between hotel workers and hotel companies — well, it says a lot about who they are and how in touch they are with San Francisco."


About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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