Get tough with defiant disrupters

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EDITORIAL It may sometimes seem like we at the Bay Guardian don't like the technology industry, but nothing could be further from the truth. We tweet, click, post, and share, playing with all the hot new tech toys that spring from the innovative minds of Bay Area residents. This is an important sector of the local economy, one that often empowers people who were just getting by to remain in expensive San Francisco.

Yes, we do regularly criticize tech (and some of its biggest neoliberal cheerleaders in City Hall), as we do to Airbnb, Lyft, and other so-called "shareable economy" companies in this issue. But that's only because we strongly believe in open and transparent discussions about public policy and the needs of city residents.

And frankly, that's not happening these days.

Instead of engaging directly and honestly with the people and our elected representatives, Airbnb has chosen to duck its obligations to the city of its birth and dodge attempts to create a public dialogue about its dangerously flawed business model. Same thing with Lyft, another company that acts as if it's entitled to undermine civic institutions without so much as a public conversation first.

Yes, these companies have come up with cool ideas that have become popular with Bay Area residents. In a city where it was tough to find a cab on Saturday nights, Lyft made it easier to find rides and allowed people to make some extra cash off their cars. Airbnb was also a great idea that makes travel cheaper and more personal.

The beauty of these ideas is their simplicity — but that is also their main flaw, because San Francisco isn't a simple city. It's a complex, dynamic city with difficult landlord-tenant dynamics, and a congested city that tries to achieve the right balance of cabs on the roadways, both systems that are the products of decades-long struggles that have spawned reams of regulations.

These tech-savvy fortune hunters, who don't understand or appreciate that history, think it's enough to have a good idea and some rich venture capitalists willing to back it. They espouse vaguely libertarian ideas about "disruptive" technologies empowering people, but then they wait for government officials to solve the problems with their business models, raking in millions of dollars in profits in the meantime and delaying their day of public reckoning as long as possible.

For example, in a May interview on KQED's Forum, Airbnb's David Hantman was asked why the company was defying a city ruling that it must pay the transient occupancy tax, he said they were waiting for the city to adopt a new regulatory structure first.

That's not an acceptable or defensible position, and it is only continuing because Mayor Ed Lee has publicly supported the company's defiance of city law and rulings. Mr. Mayor, if these are the types of "jobs" you're creating — part time jobs with no benefits in an underground economy that cannibalizes other industries, breaks city laws, and won't pay local taxes — then this city is in real trouble.

We're happy to see Board President David Chiu trying to solve Airbnb's problems, but he needs the support of other top city officials who are willing to put pressure on the company to bargain in good faith. And yes, we're talking to Mayor Lee, Tax Collector Jose Cisneros, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera, among others.

If you make the city appear impotent to enforce its own laws or too willing to go easy on wealthy corporations, it will only embolden more young opportunists to disrupt the city's regulatory authority and its social fabric. You work for us, not the venture capitalists, and it's time to show some spine.

 

Comments

The problem is that SF's laws, rules and taxes reflect the old economy. They haven't been updated to deal with the new economy.

AirBnB could be located anywhere, including outside the US. So you cannot tax and regulate it the way you would a local physical business for the simple reason that there is no jurisdiction.

With the hotel tax, the hotel guest pays it and the the hotel passes it on. There is no attempt to punish any middleman. So adopt that model - go after the SF tenants who cheat the taxman and their landlord.

But do not punish intermediaries who simply bring the two parties together - the shareable economy is happening regardless. We all do it and old-style control-and-command structures are no longer effective.

Posted by anon on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 2:42 am

AirBnb are the tax cheats. What does this have to do with tenants, other than the fact that you feel contempt for working people?

Posted by Ragazzu on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 10:32 pm

AirBnb are the tax cheats. What does this have to do with tenants, other than the fact that you feel contempt for working people?

Posted by Ragazzu on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

AirBnb are the tax cheats. What does this have to do with tenants, other than the fact that you feel contempt for working people?

Posted by Ragazzu on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

I appreciated, very much, this essay and am in agreement with the issue.

Posted by Awayneramsey on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

While it might be easy for the author of this article to say companies like Lyft should have the strict rule of law thrown at them, how can that work when Taxis and other services are not held accountable?

For years I've watched the foggy City fail to reign in reckless taxis that flaunt traffic safety rules and allow illegal operators to drive vehicles displaying another driver's photo. MUNI buses accelerate through red lights and honk their horns to drive pedestrians off the street during pedestrian walk lights. Add to that, we've got hordes of the mentally ill shambling around the sidewalks and through traffic.

The City simply doesn't take constructive or effective action to regulate itself.

That's why I choose and support Lyft. It gives me the option to choose who picks me up. I can take action to review and bounce drivers out of the system, just as they do me.

Perhaps the resolution to many other civic issues is to take more control from an ineffective city hall and empower the people to make the decisions. Have I lost a measure of faith in my city representatives - Perhaps. They shouldn't try to squash the open market - they should react competitively by improving city managed services to a point the public will choose them!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

Oh, those crazy taxis (sic). You sound like you've averaged one cab ride a year. Have a problem with a taxi driver? Call 311. They'll be drummed out. Lyft's rating system? Gee, good luck with that!

Lyft is for kids who don't know any better. For starters, riders are not insured.

http://valleywag.gawker.com/when-your-smartphone-chauffeur-becomes-a-sta...

Best comment: "Lyft is hitchhiking via WiFi."

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

Why should Dianne Feinstein make money when she rents out her taxi medallions. If you want to create jobs why not let anyone with insurance and a safe car drive people around? If taxis were cheap lots of people would have work and we all would not need so many cars, parking and all that private cars entail.

The truth is that San Francisco makes it too difficult to run small businesses with all the old style regulation and departments that want fees for everything. It is becoming a city only rich people and those with rent controlled apartments can afford.

It is about time for the taxi cartel to me broken.

Posted by Richard on Aug. 08, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

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