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Short-Term Ethics: Airbnb’s Landlord Scruples 

Wednesday, Aug 12 2015

Storefront campaign offices are the mayflies of commercial real estate; they hatch with great fanfare in the summer and are gone by late fall. As San Francisco's alphabet soup of ballot initiatives gears up for battle, various campaign committees are looking for retail properties whose landlords are willing to take on a short-term lease.

But short-term rentals come with a lot of baggage, as Airbnb has learned over and over again. SF For Everyone, the campaign Airbnb is funding (to the tune of $300,000 so far) against Proposition F — the ballot measure designed to more strictly regulate short-term rentals — learned that lesson last week when it tried to move into the former T-Mobile store at 20th and Mission.

No sooner had local blog Capp Street Crap broadcast the news of SF For Everyone's new digs than anti-Airbnb activists began protesting on social media. Days later, SF For Everyone spokeswoman Erin Simpson announced a change of plans.

"SF for Everyone has zero tolerance for unscrupulous landlords," Simpson said. "We made a mistake in not doing the due diligence on the background of this property and immediately took action when we became aware of the history. We are not using this campaign office."

Simpson didn't respond to a request to specify what makes property owner Edward Litke "unscrupulous." But the building's colorful history might hew too closely to the narrative of tech-driven displacement for Airbnb's comfort.

Until 2009, the first floor of the building housed Ritmo Latino, a Latino music store chain that transitioned into a chain of T-Mobile stores when the iPod killed the CD business. According to Mission Local, the T-Mobile store operated illegally (without a formula retail permit) for years until it was priced out by rising rents in 2014.

Meanwhile, the building's second floor was once the Sierra Hotel, a 50-unit SRO, but it went out of business and was left vacant by the absentee Litke. In 2011, housing activists attempted to squat in the building (they were arrested after about 16 hours), but in 2012 a more lucrative tenant came along in the form of Bitcoin aficionado Jared Kenna. Kenna converted the SRO into a 41-room "hacker hostel," with rooms renting to startups for $1,800 a month as of last year.

It all adds up to bad karma for SF For Everyone, which says it will announce a new campaign headquarters soon. As for the pro-Prop. F campaign, spokesman Dale Carson says it won't be renting a campaign office at all but will operate out of the offices of a "coalition member" — likely one who has a long-term lease.

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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