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Free: For Sale, Cheap: The Priceless, Remembered 

Tuesday, Aug 19 2014

Restaurant patrons in a pre-digital age without an SF Weekly to keep them company were hard-pressed for restroom reading material. They took to scanning the health notices: Signs, ostensibly aimed at the workforce, note that not only the law but "common decency" mandates washing one's hands.

The law and common decency do not always align so neatly. It's hard enough to enforce the law. It's damn near impossible to regulate common decency.

To wit, Airbnb, the company that managed to attain an assessed value higher than the Hilton chain by not paying hotel taxes, possessing no infrastructure, and blatantly and spectacularly violating city housing codes, recently made a foray into communal dining.

Through an Airbnb pilot program, city dwellers can transform their homes into virtual soup kitchens; San Francisco's Typhoid Marys and Botulism Joes can now monetize the age-old proposition of having guests over for dinner.

This is not an ambiguously legal situation. It's unambiguous. "It's completely illegal," Richard Lee, the head of the city Department of Public Health food safety program, told SF Weekly's Rachel Swan. But that's hardly an impediment for a rip-roaring high-tech business model these days; it's an illegal ancillary venture of an illegal venture.

Lee's health inspectors could slap a $3,000 fine on a for-profit host essentially running an illegal restaurant. But the $10 billion tech platform enabling the process stands to pull a legal dine-and-dash, emerging unscathed.

That's the game plan this entire city is running now. As such, the so-called "sharing economy" has led to spectacular wealth concentrated in the hands of those who, conveniently, don't share the risk in partaking of the quasi-legal services they provide.

There's another side, though, and that's where "common decency" comes in. The hot new technological innovation, it seems, is to sell people stuff that's free.

Last month, the City Attorney clamped down on an app called Monkey Parking, which did to San Franciscans what petulant monkeys do to irritating zoo patrons.

The service allowed drivers to auction off their public parking spots to the highest bidder — niftily selling that which she does not own. At last, the tech-enabled meek can inherit the earth, assuming the role of the drunken football player who charges people for keg beer at someone else's party.

Well, this is San Francisco's keg. We have lawyers to protect our kegs. And, per Police Code section 63(c), you're not allowed to peddle city property as if it were your own. But that doesn't mean there weren't people lining up to buy it.

Even though it belongs to all of us. Even though it's something that should be free.

Monkey Parking managed to hit the jackpot for insidiousness. It encouraged profiteers to commandeer this city's beguiling supply of parking spaces, and establish a market for municipal possessions. A tech-enabled elite thereby won the privilege of entering into a bidding war for a free service now denied to the population at large.

An app enabling interlopers to enrich themselves by denying San Franciscans a place to park went down in this city worse than the quiche at Botulism Joe's illegal restaurant. City Attorney Dennis Herrera certainly didn't lose any populist cred by swatting it down. But monetizing free stuff and pulling it out of the reach of those unable or unwilling to pay for free stuff is too genius an idea to tamp out with one indignant lawyer's letter (or even by extraditing Monkey Parking's creators to The Hague to be tried for war crimes).

It's a business model that has been taken up by others — without reservation.

Americans like to do two things on July 4 weekend: blow stuff up and eat and drink too much (not necessarily in that order). If we could count how many times the former has been a problem — well, that's difficult because we're missing some fingers. We grudgingly accept municipal prohibitions on re-creating one of Belfast's finest in our backyards.

But, when a high-tech innovation got between locals and the dinner table, people grew upset.

Over the July 4 weekend, an app called ReservationHop debuted here in the city. The service bought up spots at desirable eateries and hawked them to hungry patrons; the reservation that would normally be gratis would now cost enough to purchase an entire meal at a less pricey restaurant. Essentially, this recapitulates Monkey Parking's parasitic script — with the critical distinction that the entity it sells (but does not own) is private rather than public. And, therefore, the service is legal.

The oceans of bile loosed at ReservationHop's audacity induced a potential "soft pivot" for the site. In the future, it may actually cut the restaurants it profits from in on the deal — though other reservation sites don't. And there are many of them.

Either way, another free service is on its way to monetization. Tech-enabled folks with money to burn are, rather literally, skipping everyone else in line.

This is an example of the increasingly egalitarian nature of San Francisco's increasingly inegalitarian nature. Now everyone can feel a little bit of this city's rapid bifurcation. Elegant diners stiffed at their elegant restaurants can wander out to witness tech shuttles squatting in public Muni stops, dodge rolly bag-wielding hordes patronizing a rental service that stiffs the city, and register their displeasure via the social networking site that held the city hostage until it received a hefty tax break.

It's all very common.

But not very decent.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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