Airbnb seemed so simple — but collaborative consumption can raise complex issues
But nobody seemed to be getting hurt and this was easy money, thanks to an elegantly simple dot-com idea. Sure, there were risks, both from the powers-that-be and from the strangers moving into my home. A good friend of mine in San Francisco who used Airbnb kept his valuables in a locked closet, which his temporary tenants — who had used fake identities and fraudulent credit cards — broke into, stealing thousands of dollars worth of equipment and getting away with it.
By the end of the year, it began to dawn on me that this business model wasn't as simple as it initially seemed, triggered partially when the company sent me a 1099 federal tax form for the thousands of dollars I earned in 2010. Oh yeah, taxes, shit. So I paid my state and federal taxes on what had once seemed like free money, and I began to wonder what this "godsend" really meant for San Francisco, just as various advocacy groups were beginning to explore the issue.
"We began working on this issue a few years ago when we saw a big number of tourist conversions," said Ted Gullicksen, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. He discovered thousands of apartments — sometimes even entire buildings, usually those covered by rent control laws — were being taken off the rental market for use by tourists, sometimes after evictions to clear them of tenants. If I could use these sites to make money, unscrupulous landlords could as well.
"It shouldn't even get to a tax issue because much of this is illegal," Gullicksen said, noting that landlords opposed legislation a few years ago to give tenants more rights to sublet their apartments or add additional roommates. "This talk of shared economy strikes me as the wealthy asking the less wealthy to sacrifice."
Advocates of the sharing economy argue that it's just the opposite, making environmentalist and even socialist arguments that it's a smart way of using fewer resources that empowers working class people.
"This idea of supplementing the formal economy with an economy based on sharing and bartering is very powerful. If you supplement a formal economy with an economy based on sharing you will have a lighter economic footprint and you would rely on relationships with people and actually, with less income, have a higher standard of living," progressive activist Van Jones — whose new book The Green Collar Economy, discusses collaborative consumption — told us last month.
But it doesn't usually feel quite so populist. Ron Conway, the billionaire angel investor who helped funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in tech money to groups supporting Mayor Ed Lee's election campaign last year, has significant investments in Airbnb and other "shareable" companies that Lee opposes taxing, as The New York Times reported last month.
Around that same time, I, along with many other local journalists, was invited to a fancy round-table dinner hosted by SparkPR to facilitate schmoozing with a half-dozen collaborative consumption start-ups, an event that felt more like the decadent peak of the last dot-com bubble than the launching of a people-powered economic revolution.
WINED AND DINED
Over fine wine and a seated gourmet dinner in a private room in Perbacco Ristorante + Bar, journalists representing the New York Times, San Francisco Examiner, Bloomberg, TechCrunch, and other media outlets chatted with representatives from Love Home Swap, Getaround, Zimride, Event Up, and DogVacay.
This was the latest event in the public relations blitz by advocates of "The Sharing Economy," which was the title of an event at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association two weeks earlier, which featured representatives from Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Shareable, Vayable, and Getaround (representatives of this car-sharing company do indeed seem to get around).