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California

Airbnb fight: San Franciscans ponder housing, housing and housing on ballot

Tenants Protest AirBnb, Alleging Illegal Conversions Of Rent-Controlled Apartments

A protester with the San Francisco Tenant Union, seen in 2014, hangs a sign on the exterior of a city building that allegedly evicted all of the tenants so that the units could be converted to Airbnb rentals. 

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Most California voters weighing in on ballot measures Tuesday face school district bond issues or yawn-inducing parcel taxes. Here in San Francisco, however, the very soul of the city is at stake. Or at least that’s how it feels to many.

The issue at the heart of it all: housing.

“When people can’t afford to live in the city, it just changes overnight,” Michael Reiner, 24, said Monday as he prepared to hop on his bicycle in San Francisco’s Mission District and carefully ride home carrying three vinyl records he had just purchased at a nearby thrift store.

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“I think it’s the defining issue for the city,” added the advertising industry freelancer, who moved here two years ago and “got lucky,” finding a Sunset District rental.

Perhaps most visible of a host of housing-related measures on the ballot here is Proposition F, which would tighten restrictions on short-term housing rentals, taking aim most pointedly at Airbnb in the hometown of the sharing economy tech giant, valued at $25 billion.

The measure would limit rentals to 75 days a year whether or not they are hosted (even if a resident is renting a room in their home while they are still there); crack down with potential misdemeanor charges on hosting platforms that list unlawful short-term rentals; and allow “interested parties” such as neighbors to sue companies that don’t play by the new rules, among other requirements.

Airbnb has spent more than $8 million to defeat the measure -- giving it an even higher profile as an emblem of the widening inequities that define today’s San Francisco.

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That’s the San Francisco where a revved-up tech economy has driven the unemployment rate down to 3.2% and where an influx of young, wealthy tech workers and a dearth of available housing has driven the median price of a one-bedroom apartment to $4,000 a month.

The buckets of cash spent by Airbnb, Reiner said, was “maybe the thing that most convinced me” to support Proposition F.

“It just seems that we need to keep big corporations in check,” Reiner said.

Opponents counter that the measure has unfairly become a scapegoat for anxieties over a housing crisis with much broader causes than short-term rental housing.

Patrick Hannan, campaign manager for No on Prop F, said it “disingenuously asserts [that] it addresses the housing crisis. … Thousands of apartments will not suddenly become available.”

Regardless, a scapegoat it is.

“Yes on Proposition F,” Adrian Martinez, 27, said, pumping his fist in the air as he passed by the Uptown, an old-school Mission District bar that sported a pro-Proposition F sign. (“Fix the Airbnb Mess,” it reads.)

Martinez, the guitarist for the band Motor Inn and a sound technician for other musicians, moved to the Outer Mission from Las Vegas in 2005 but  along with his sister and a couple of roommates lost his housing six months ago.

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They were evicted from their $2,000-a-month digs for what was supposed to be a legal move-in by a relative of the owner. But a friend of Martinez’s saw the place listed on Craigslist not long afterward, he said -- for $4,500.

He’s now subletting space in a warehouse, but it’s not stable.

“I’m not homeless. I’m not fully settled,” he said, his long black hair swinging as he hustled down Capp Street with brisk long-legged strides.

The shift in who can and cannot afford to be here is “sucking the soul out of the city,” he said. “It feels, like, sterilized. I mean, where’s the edge?”

Proposition F is just one of a number of ballot measures targeting the housing crisis

Proposition I, for instance, takes aim at the Mission District in particular, where displacement has been particularly pronounced. It would place a moratorium on market-rate housing development here for at least 18 months while a “neighborhood stabilization plan” is crafted to ensure affordable housing is created.

Voters will also decide whether to approve a $310-million affordable housing bond -- heavily backed by Mayor Ed Lee, who has presided over the boom and is running virtually unopposed for a second term.

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That bond measure, Proposition A, would help finance construction, acquisition and preservation of housing affordable to low- and middle-income households; rehabilitate and preserve affordable rental apartments to prevent eviction of long-term residents; fix up dilapidated public housing; and fund rental assistance and home ownership down payment programs for middle-income residents, including teachers.

Yet another measure, Proposition K, would allow surplus city property to be used to build affordable housing for a range of needs -- from the homeless to those with incomes up to 120% of area median income.

Larger projects -- with more than 200 units -- would include some for those earning up to 150% or more of the area median income.

Indeed, for some residents here, protecting the middle class is just as important as finding housing for those who have been forced onto the streets or the sofas of friends and relatives.

Justine McClain cradled her 6-month son in her arms while pushing her older boy -- nearly 2 -- in a double stroller in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood Monday evening.

Of 14 women in her moms group, all but two left over the past year or two, as they grew out of their one-bedroom apartments and found they could not afford anything larger, said McClain, a stay-at-home mom now who considers herself fortunate because she and her husband own their place.

“It’s sad to me, because this neighborhood has so many resources for kids,” she said. “And so many people can’t stay. ... What I see right now is there’s no place for working families, [even] families earning $250,000.”

McClain, like Reiner, had already voted by mail on Monday. But unlike Reiner, she opposed the Airbnb measure, saying she didn’t like “the idea that neighbors are tattling on each other” and that it would place undue burdens on San Francisco’s Planning Department.

“Airbnb,” she said, “is a tiny piece of a huge housing problem.”

Times staff writer Tracey Lien, in San Francisco, contributed to this report.

Twitter: @leeromney

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