shall we house the homeless in vacation rentals?

San Francisco citizens are wrestling with vacation rental regulations and rising homelessness. Let’s innovate solutions!

Here’s a modest proposal: vacation rental firms host homeless people in empty units during nights when there are no paying customers.

Perhaps AirBnB / HomeAway / VRBO / Flipkey / Kid & Coe / can offer this service as a civic contribution: hosting homeless folks in the vacant rooms of their clients with sponsored housekeeping the next morning.

If people are excited about the idea, perhaps we could propose a ballot measure: “vacation rental services operating in San Francisco must donate their empty stock each night, to be made available to San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team.”

A friend suggested we call this idea “Prop L, for liability.” This sort of living space allocation is challenging to imagine. Even if my home were available for rent by strangers on the internet, I imagine I would feel hesitant to offer it for charity of this sort. Perhaps someone living on the street would be able to take their first shower in weeks. If there’s a cleaning crew the next day, is it that different from a “regular” guest in my little vacation rental?

Due to some unfortunate advertising about their local tax contributions, AirBnB was all over my San Francisco news feed on Twitter. I read many articles, including “Sorry Airbnb, you don’t get a gold star for paying taxes” by Emily Badger in the Washington Post. Just before the vote on a ballot measure to regulate vacation rentals, AirBnB seemed suddenly more out of touch with basic civic principles, ignoring the greater positive impact they could have on our shared challenges as a city.

Disappearing housing stock for vacation rentals ranks as a hot topic in San Francisco, alongside increasing numbers of unhoused city residents. We appear surrounded by the evicted and the struggling here. “S.F.’s homeless crisis: Can Mayor Ed Lee clean up streets?” in the SF Chronicle shows colored datadots growing denser by the year; there appear to be more homeless encampments and more sidewalk feces in more parts of the city.

Homeless encampments in San Francisco, from “S.F.’s homeless crisis: Can Ed Lee clean up streets?” in the SF Chronicle 23 October 2015 by Heather Knight and Joaquin Palomino

Amidst discussion of a growing unwashed mass of people, we must reconnect with some of the individual truths involved. A recent article from SF Weekly offered new insight into a few of the local unhoused: “Life on the Streets: San Francisco’s Homeless in Their Own Words.” Social problems are made up of individuals; caring for other humans is a handful - ideally a helping handful.

My San Francisco social networks contain both market-endorsing entrepreneurs and progressive activists. Recently I went to a ballot measure party, wherein these two sorts of citizens debated Proposition F “Initiative to Restrict Short-Term Rentals” and Proposition I “Mission District Housing Moratorium”. Prop F would curtail rampant amateur innkeeping and Prop I would pause the machinery of market-rate construction to drive reprioritization of affordable housing.

Our group was split on each of these ballot measures. Both of them are bad policies, according to economists and most students of government — they’re unwieldy and likely to have plenty of unfortunate, unintended consequences that could further exacerbate extant housing problems. There are better ways to achieve these results, working within the system! explain the rational.

And yet, the people who support these measures might be understandably reaching beyond reason. In a city awash with cash and wired to the teeth with disruptive technology experiments, it might make sense to want to throw a monkey wrench somewhere in the spinning gears of a mind of pure machinery. As many of my smart friends on social networks calmly point out why the irrational ballot measures should fail, I have begun to fantasize about more radical ballot measure experiments to raise awkward social questions.

So, Prop L [for liability]: “vacation rental services operating in San Francisco must donate their empty stock each night, to be made available to San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team.” I wouldn’t likely support this if I was renting out my home, but I get a little bit excited thinking about a wider range of options for how we might allocate and share space.

What if renting a home online for extra money means you have a random chance of housing or showering a homeless person now and then? Let’s talk about it.

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