Shrimp Boy is innocent (say his attorneys), Airbnb comes clean, and Ellis Act reform advances
Who is Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow? In the 137-page federal complaint detailing charges that led to the high-profile arrest of Sen. Leland Yee, Chow, and 24 others two weeks ago (see "Crime and politics," April 1), Chow is described as the powerful "Dragonhead" of an ancient Chinese organized crime syndicate, "overseeing a vast criminal enterprise involved in drugs, guns, prostitution, protection rackets, moving stolen booze and cigarettes, and money laundering," as we reported at the time.
Not so, famed defense attorney Tony Serra told a crowd of reporters at Pier 5 Law Offices in San Francisco's North Beach, where he and fellow attorneys were joined by supporters wearing red tees bearing the slogan "Free Shrimp Boy" last week.
Attorneys Serra and Curtis Briggs described a five-year federal operation to target Chow and ensnare him in wrongdoing, insisting he had wanted no part in criminal activity. Serra said agents had "stuffed money into his pocket" despite his protests, and noted that his legal team was representing Chow pro bono because he has no money. (Rebecca Bowe)
AIRBNB COMES CLEAN
Airbnb came clean last week, sending out new terms of service drafted April 7 that customers must agree to before conducting further business starting April 30. The new agreements seem intended to address longstanding issues in San Francisco that the Guardian first raised in May 2012 ("The problem with the sharing economy," 5/1/12), and have been recently joined by other journalists in spelling out and highlighting.
In the opening of its new Terms of Service, Airbnb wrote (in all caps): "IN PARTICULAR, HOSTS SHOULD UNDERSTAND HOW THE LAWS WORK IN THEIR RESPECTIVE CITIES. SOME CITIES HAVE LAWS THAT RESTRICT THEIR ABILITY TO HOST PAYING GUESTS FOR SHORT PERIODS. THESE LAWS ARE OFTEN PART OF A CITY'S ZONING OR ADMINISTRATIVE CODES. IN MANY CITIES, HOSTS MUST REGISTER, GET A PERMIT, OR OBTAIN A LICENSE BEFORE LISTING A PROPERTY OR ACCEPTING GUESTS. CERTAIN TYPES OF SHORT-TERM BOOKINGS MAY BE PROHIBITED ALTOGETHER. LOCAL GOVERNMENTS VARY GREATLY IN HOW THEY ENFORCE THESE LAWS. PENALTIES MAY INCLUDE FINES OR OTHER ENFORCEMENT. HOSTS SHOULD REVIEW LOCAL LAWS BEFORE LISTING A SPACE ON AIRBNB."
It seems like a good first step. Next we'll see whether the company follows through with paying its local taxes and working with the city on legislation to legalize more of its business model in San Francisco. (Steven T. Jones)
NEW RIDESHARE REGULATIONS PROPOSED
Rideshare companies must provide their drivers with insurance. That was the gist of a public letter released last week by the California Insurance Commission, addressed to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates transportation network companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar.
"While smart phone technology is bringing new business opportunities to the marketplace and new transportation choices for consumers, our investigative hearing revealed serious insurance gaps in the current business model of Transportation Network Companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar," Insurance Commissioner David Jones wrote in a statement to press. "As long as TNCs are encouraging non-professional drivers to use their personal vehicles to drive passengers for a profit, a risk which personal automobile insurance simply does not cover, TNCs should bear the burden of making sure that insurance is provided. Our recommendations will ensure there is insurance protection for passengers, drivers and pedestrians."
Whether the TNCs should provide insurance has been the subject of intense debate in state and local governments over the past year. The recommendations to the CPUC come specifically out of a hearing on TNC insurance that Jones held March 21. The Guardian also wrote an editorial, "Sharing economy should share its wealth," calling for rideshares to provide insurance, not only because it's unfair competition (insurance costs money to provide, a burden taxi companies carry but not TNCs), but because people and TNC drivers in accidents were left for broke, lacking inadequate insurance. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)
ELLIS ACT REFORM ADVANCES
Sen. Mark Leno's Senate Bill 1439 — which would protect rent-controlled housing in San Francisco by amending the Ellis Act, including making property owners wait at least five years after buying a property to evict tenants under the act — cleared its first legislative hurdle last week.
The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee passed the measure on a 6-4 vote, and it heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee next. The bill has strong support in San Francisco, from progressive constituencies through Mayor Ed Lee to support by leaders in the business community and tech world.
Yet the measure faces a tough road in Sacramento, where the landlord lobby and other conservative interests oppose it. "A bill that could strip San Francisco landlords of their freedom to leave the rental housing business heads to a key Senate committee next month," the California Apartment Association wrote last month in an alert to its members.
But as Tenants Together demonstrated in a recent study of how the Ellis Act has been used in San Francisco since its passage in 1985, a legislative reaction to a California Supreme Court case upholding rent control laws, the legislation has largely been a tool used by real estate speculators to clear rent-controlled buildings of tenants. The study found that 51 percent of Ellis Act evictions took place within a year of the property being purchased, 68 percent within the first five years, and 30 percent of Ellis Act evictions were from serial evictors, often by businesses specializing in flipping properties for profit.
"California's Ellis Act was specifically designed to allow legitimate landlords a way out of the rental business, but in San Francisco this state law is being abused by speculators who never intend to be landlords," Leno said today in a prepared statement. "As a result, longtime tenants, many of them seniors, disabled people, and low-income families, are being uprooted from their homes and communities. The five-year holding period in my bill would prevent these devastating evictions from forever changing the face of our diverse city." (Steven T. Jones)
FROM GOOGLE BUS TO GOOGLER'S HOME
The morning of April 11 kicked off with yet another Google bus blockade in San Francisco's Mission District, only this time housing activists said a Google employee is directly to blame for displacing residents.
The blockade, which took place at 18th and Dolores streets, was short-lived but featured speeches by tenants facing eviction, as well as a giant cardboard cutout depicting 812 Guerrero, a seven-unit building where tenants are facing eviction under the Ellis Act.
The property owner is Jack Halprin, a lawyer who is the head of eDiscovery, Enterprise for Google. He moved into one of the units after purchasing the building two years ago and served eviction notices on Feb. 26, according to tenant Claudia Triado, a third grade teacher at Fairmount Elementary in San Francisco who lives there with her 2-year-old son.
The Bay Guardian left a voice message for Halprin requesting comment, but got no reply
After the bus blockade, activists proceeded to 812 Guerrero and staged a short rally on the front steps.
Evan Wolkenstein, who teaches Jewish literature at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, said he's lived at 812 Guerrero for eight years. Other tenants facing eviction from the property include an artist and a disabled person, he added. During the Google bus blockade, minutes before police officers arrived to clear a path for the bus by urging protesters onto the sidewalk, Wolkenstein gave a speech about the overall impact the tech sector is having on San Francisco. (Rebecca Bowe)