The problem with the sharing economy - Page 4

Airbnb seemed so simple — but collaborative consumption can raise complex issues

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It was a broad and fairly unusual coalition of groups that pushed the city to begin regulating and taxing Airbnb and similar companies — from the Tenants Union and labor unions on the left to Hotel Council and Building Owners and Management Association on the other end the spectrum — making the prospects of a successful legislative challenge to the tax law interpretation unlikely.

Gullicksen said Airbnb may be one of the biggest companies affected by the ruling, but it isn't the worst. He said Vacation Rental By Owner (www.vrbo.com) converts entire blocks of apartments into tourist hotels. By contrast, he said many renters use Airbnb to occasionally supplement their incomes.

"It depends on how often it's used and to what scope it's used," he said.

Mayor Lee and some members of the Board of Supervisors recently created a Sharing Economy Working Group to hammer out those distinctions and make policy recommendations, but it has yet to be constituted or begin meeting. And Board President David Chiu has introduced legislation developed by the Tenants Union to ban the worst "hotelization" of rental units by corporations.

I'll be curious to see how these issues play out, even though I no longer use Airbnb. Advocates for collaborative consumption seem to think they've invented something new under the sun and the rest of us just need to catch on. "When new business models emerge, you're going to constantly be in ongoing discussions with policymakers to educate them about the difference with traditional models," Rubey said.

Clearly, they've convinced Mayor Lee, who unsuccessfully sought a delay in the Tax Collector's ruling, following the tax breaks he extended last year to Twitter, Zynga, and other tech companies. But I'm less convinced. Airbnb once seemed like a simple and harmless way to make extra money, but in San Francisco — where landlords and tenants often battle over the very soul and essence of the city — life here and the policies that govern it are endlessly complicated. And that's nothing new.

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