Renting isn't sharing

Share conference outlines the possibilities and pitfalls for a new economy at the crossroads

Green for All's Nikki Silvestri and venture capitalist Ron Conway

Last week's two-day Share conference in San Francisco came at an auspicious moment for companies that define themselves as part of the new "sharing economy," which ranges from peer-to-peer services and products brokered online to various cooperative ventures designed to minimize resource consumption.

Most of these growing companies are part of San Francisco's technology industry, using web-based interfaces to conduct their economic transactions. And some have been making local enemies and headlines recently by disrupting key aspects of urban life, from Airbnb impacting the housing and hotel markets to Lyft and Uber upending the taxi industry.

In fact, the biggest battle brewing at City Hall these days is over widely watched legislation by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu to regulate and legalize the short-term rentals facilitated by Airbnb and similar companies. And state agencies based in San Francisco are now working on regulations that would affect Lyft and its ilk.

So we decided to listen in as disciples of the sharing economy talked among themselves about the challenges and opportunities facing what they call the "new economy," one that is at an important crossroads that will determine whether the interests of communities or capital guide its evolution.



When Chiu took the stage at the Share conference, he was joining a sharing economy community that, he said he would probably be a part of today if he hadn't gone into public service, citing his own experience with tech startups before running for supervisor.

"I believe we are becoming the capital of the sharing economy," Chiu said, citing examples of San Francisco's "ethos of sharing" that include the Summer of Love, Burning Man, and the fact that "we are a community that wants to foster trust among strangers to build what I think is one of the most amazing cities in the entire world. But we're also a city that is expensive. The rent is too damn high."

Chiu spoke proudly of San Francisco's environmentalism and his own legislative contributions to that legacy. And he said "we are a city of innovation," lauding the technology industry. "We understand that keeping up with the Joneses may not be the way to go," he said. "In fact, sharing with the Joneses, I think, is the better path."

In Chiu's formulation, the sharing economy is the synthesis of all of these values and goals. By using computers and smartphones to facilitate the sharing of goods and services, we use less stuff and consume fewer resources, in the process opening up economic opportunities for more people.

He sounded like the most enthusiastic of sharing economy true believers, but with a couple of caveats, acknowledging how those "pesky taxes" on most of these economic transactions go unpaid, and how Airbnb and similar companies have removed apartments from the housing market for local residents.

"Shareable housing has both helped and exacerbated our housing crisis," Chiu said, describing how he spent more than a year working on legislation that would regulate and legalize short-term housing rentals in San Francisco, where they are now considered illegal "hotel conversions" (see "Into thin air," 8/6/13, and dozens of other Guardian stories and blog posts on the issue).

Chiu's legislation would require Airbnb hosts to register with the city, rent out only their primary residence, and occupy that space for at least 275 days per year (which Chiu has said limits Airbnb hosts to just 90 rental nights per year, although critics dispute that interpretation).