The home-rental site Airbnb is in the middle of a brutal political war in San Francisco (somewhat distinct from its previous brutal political war in San Francisco) over a ballot initiative up for vote next month that would further restrict short-term rentals in the city.
The company has campaigned aggressively to oppose the initiative, called Proposition F, and it recently rolled out ads on bus shelters and billboards around town that were so painfully awkward many passersby took them for a hoax:
Here was another targeting the city's parks and recreation department:
And Public Works:
Other ads in this vein were addressed to the city's school system, its parking enforcement division and its tax collectors.
Airbnb brings in about $1 million each month in hotel tax revenue to San Francisco, the company's home town. But ads presumably designed to highlight that contribution (and any implied threat to it) wound up looking smug instead. By Thursday morning, the company had apologized and vowed to take down the ads.
The campaign, though, no doubt has hurt the company's cause two weeks ahead of the vote. Snarky tone aside, the ads were premised on several problematic ideas baked into the tech industry's uneasy relationship with San Francisco. For one: Taxes paid by big tech companies are a benevolent gift and not an obligation. For another: Tech companies can cherry-pick the parts of government they think are worthwhile (running libraries) from the parts they don't (enforcing regulation). A third: Any policy complications created by their technology — like altering the city's affordable-housing supply — are justified if the tax base grows.
The number itself — $12 million in hotel tax revenue that is ultimately paid by Airbnb's hosts — also suggests a misunderstanding of what much of the hard stuff of government costs (here is some of the sad math). Especially if the city was supposed to divvy this windfall among its libraries, schools, roads, parking meters and public parks.
The fact that Airbnb has reportedly spent more than $8 million fighting Proposition F also makes that $12 million look not so generous after all.