Unwelcome Advances: Airbnb’s Pride Charm Offensive

“Homespun Americana horseshit.” That's how longtime San Francisco resident Patrick Connors describes Airbnb's Welcome Wagon, a mobile porchfront crisscrossing the city to promote the company's sponsorship of SF Pride.

Last week, the wagon parked at the Mission Pool and Playground on Valencia. On offer were free pineapple and beet juice, DIY crafts, and a crowdsourced community Pride flag. Although passersby were intrigued, the wagon's presence was anything but welcome for the half dozen activists who gathered to protest a company they call emblematic of the “siphoning economy.”

According to a 2014 report presented to the Board of Supervisors, Airbnb alone has kept between 925 and 1,960 units off the housing market. In the Mission, 29 percent of potential rentals were listed on the home-sharing website.

“Folksy expressions like 'welcome wagon' give a mom-and-pop feel to what is really corporate greed and a disregard for the broader community,” said Sue Englander, a professor at San Francisco State University, who passed out fliers declaring THE MISSION WANTS HOUSING, NOT HOTELS. Behind her, three young hype girls in Airbnb tank tops bounced serenely to muzak.

Even as it closes in on a $24 billion valuation, Airbnb seems determined to charm a city that hasn't exactly embraced it. On June 18, the company released a video featuring two retirees on a fixed income who rely on Airbnb for extra income. The company also posted data indicating it brought $469 million to the city's economy last year. The Welcome Wagon not only seeks to affirm Airbnb's LGBT bona fides but also the company's vision of itself as a community-builder.

Connors doesn't buy the marketing. “It's tone deaf,” he said. “Nobody thinks that way except someone in a goddamn boardroom.”

On June 16, the Harvey Milk Democratic Club published an open letter to the San Francisco Pride board that echoes Connors' cynicism: “These companies in particular are bullying and buying their way into our community's good graces … They are profiting off of our homes, our names, and our identities.” The letter went on to question why the Pride board didn't partner with the many unionized hotels in the city instead.

As an Airbnb employee gave someone a temporary tattoo, a couple of activists nearby took potshots at the Welcome Wagon. “Looks like a plantation porch,” one said. “Don't drink the Airbnb Kool-Aid,” another shouted to an Urban Outfitters-esque couple enticed by the free juice.

Amy Farah Weiss, a self-proclaimed YIMBY and mayoral candidate, lounged against the playground gate, waiting for people to sign her petition calling for Airbnb to be more transparent about city registration laws. (San Francisco requires Airbnb hosts to register with the Planning Department.)

“I wish that Airbnb would have trained all of their outreach employees in the specifics of local rules so tenants know to check their lease first,” she said. Since the company is offering a $500 “travel bonus” for San Franciscans who list their spaces in June, it's unlikely that transparency will trump inventory.

Connors jokes that the theme of this year's Pride is “eviction assistance.” In press releases, Airbnb bills itself Pride's “alternative accommodation partner.” But with its rainbow decor and marigold flower boxes, the Welcome Wagon evokes something else — an alternative reality. One where everyone is too carefree to worry about eviction.

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