For a firm whose business was illegal for six out of seven years of its existence, Airbnb has matured briskly into the Caligula stage of imperial excess. Now we know how drug kingpins would behave if heroin were legalized.
Airbnb has invested $8 million to crush Proposition F this November to achieve two goals: Airbnb is terrified that Prop. F might pass, and Airbnb is spending to deter wimpier cities from contemplating regulations of Airbnb not written by Airbnb. Political operatives know Airbnb’s play by the term of art “laying your dick on the table.”
Airbnb’s mailers pitying beleaguered hosts who rely on homesharing income are as disingenuous as Wal-Mart claiming they couldn’t raise wages because of pensioners. Never mind that vacation rentals transfer 4,500 housing units to tourists, which drives up rents which forces hosts to rent spare rooms to stay afloat. Never mind that Airbnb profits from our precariousness. Never mind that no one has ever said, “You know what my neighborhood needs? More tourists!” Never mind that the same politicians bemoaning the inadequate supply of new housing simultaneously support the removal of more than 4,500 housing units that could be rented instantly. (Funny how supply and demand is obvious Econ 101 until Ron Conway starts writing campaign checks.) Never mind that all my fellow comedians who stayed in a “hosted” Airbnb on the road agree that it’s creepy and weird — and we know from creepy.
Instead of all that foolishness, Airbnb’s campaign sows panic over Prop. F’s establishment of a new private right of legal action. The current regulation as written by Airbnb via its wholly owned subsidiaries in City Hall gave The City sole enforcement authority. According to Airbnb, Prop. F would lead to an avalanche of frivolous lawsuits for profit, as opposed to all those lawsuits for passion.
Airbnb’s sinister Clintonite triggerman Chris Lehane calls it “lawsuit vigilantism.” They’ve exhumed every obscure conservative trope vilifying trial lawyers. They are likely debating whether they can say “shyster Jew lawyers” without getting sued by my people.
Airbnb neglects to mention that our entire legal system relies on the private right of action. My genius friend Hina Shah of the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic, and one of the lawyers bringing the sexual harassment and wage theft lawsuit against Airbnb and Uber executives, told me, “Private enforcement of public rights is the American way.”
Most regulations — labor, environmental, ADA, housing, discrimination — have a private right of action. Yet somehow capitalism limps along.
Corporations lobby to undermine regulation. If regulations must exist because of political problems (“the voters”), they should be unenforceable. Regulations can be unenforceable in their design, which ours are, and by vesting enforcement solely with government.
With The City responsible for enforcement, a mayor politically dependent on Airbnb will not zealously enforce regulations his patron doesn’t want. Airbnb will get a shot at chipping away at enforcement every single budget cycle. When budget cuts must be made, The City can be relied upon not to preserve Airbnb enforcement over, say, buses or libraries or nurses. The private right of action protects the enforcement process against political whim and austerity budgets.
The reason private rights of action don’t lead to frivolous lawsuits is that lawsuits are expensive. If you want to sue someone, you either have to be rich and insane, or have a solid enough case that a lawyer thinks they’ll get attorneys’ fees when they win.
Airbnb’s campaign against a private right of action represents an admission that their business relies on illegality. Because Airbnb does not share liability, they profit from a deluge of unregistered, unchecked rentals. A private right of action would bring them into compliance with existing regulations, but Airbnb knows that obeying the law costs more than ignoring it, which current law abets.
Airbnb isn’t afraid that Prop. F will lead to lawsuits that are frivolous but to ones that are not.
Nato Green is a San Francisco native stand-up comedian and writer who performs on Saturdays at the Cynic Cave, and on Tuesday, October 27 at Doc’s Lab on the KALW Public Radio Comedy Showcase. Holler @natogreen.