Could our office be rented?

[dropcap]Earlier [/dropcap]this month, while walking up Alabama Street from Mariposa en route to a show at Project Artaud, Tarin Towers spotted something even more surreal than much of what you’d find in an avant-garde art space.

“I saw two young, well-dressed people carrying two fancy roller bags — each,” she recalls. That’s not who you’d expect to be traipsing along Alabama and Mariposa at twilight; this is a gritty, mixed-use neighborhood with tents and homeless encampments tucked between the parked cars and street signs. But things grew odder still. “They walked up to a pop-up camper with the door thrown open and all kinds of light coming from inside. There was the unmistakable greeting of people expecting each other who didn’t know each other.”  

Or, as she put it on social media, “Yoooooo I just saw a young Italian tourist couple checking into an RV parked on Alabama Street as a motherfuckin’ Airbnb.”

For Towers, who has fought mightily to stay marginally housed in this city — and harbors real worries she’ll end up in a tent on Shotwell or a camper on Potrero — this was a deeply distasteful moment. “Folks,” she wrote, “we have achieved the gentrification of homelessness.”

On the next day and the day after that, your humble narrator went and knocked on the door of the RV that met Towers’ description. Nobody answered, which isn’t surprising. Residing in a motor vehicle isn’t legal in this city, and one of the best ways to avoid being rousted by the cops is to simply not answer the door (Or, perhaps, no one was home).

Accordion files were strewn about in the “Grandma’s attic” section above the driver and a plastic owl of the sort you’d use to dissuade pigeons from roosting on your dormers was propped up in the passenger’s seat. This is not decor befitting Italian tourists in dainty shoes. And there is no extant short-term rental listing online that meets the description and location of this RV.

So, just what Towers saw remains a mystery. Perhaps two people decided to go clothes shopping and then practice their Italian while walking to met a man who’s down on his luck but still buys and sells fine roller bags. It’s hard to say.

[dropcap]If [/dropcap]this were a “motherfuckin’ Airbnb,” however, it would come as little surprise to Omar Masry. He’s the senior analyst at this city’s Office of Short-Term Rentals, the outfit given the ostensibly Sisyphean task of enforcing this city’s seemingly unenforceable laws reining in short-term rentals. It’s hard to succeed in a government position when powerful elements of that same government don’t want you to succeed — and write the laws thusly. But Masry and his colleagues seem to be making decent progress pushing that stone up a hill. And, along the way, he’s seen some stuff.

In the past couple of years, he says, he’s taken action on 20 or more RVs listed on Airbnb; around a quarter of them, he says, were parked in the Mission. In the same week Towers witnessed whatever she witnessed on Alabama and Mariposa, Masry wrote letters to two different men hawking RVs on Airbnb to visitors looking for a real San Francisco experience (and, it would seem, a late-night piss in the gutter). This guy, offering a stay in his on-street camper for $264 a night, was quick enough on the draw to immediately deactivate his listing.

This guy, flogging the $22-a-night opportunity to sleep in his Vanagon (“There’s NO bathroom & NO shower, but I can point you in the direction of a few coffee shops and restaurants where you can use the bathroom”) was not. Or at least he hasn’t been yet.

Masry has faced off with the van on Airbnb that moved from Bernal Heights parking spot to Bernal Heights parking spot and garnered attention because its residents had a propensity to defecate in the bushes. Its owner, a second-year law school student, initially decided to put his education to work in challenging the city’s regulatory authority, but has since capitulated. The Office of Short-Term Rentals has also curtailed the hawking of yurts atop industrial buildings and in backyards and all manner of 16-to-a-room hostels in residential neighborhoods, some of which were cheeky enough to paint numbers on the interior doors.

There are only six people in Masry’s office. There are many, many short-term listings in this city; this would seem to be a setup akin to playing Whac-a-Mole against an invading army of moles.

Fortunately, however, there are rules in both war and short-term rentals. And, Masry says, these rules are being followed. A settlement between this city and Airbnb, VRBO and Homeaway stipulated the gradual culling of problematic listings. Several weeks ago, dormant listings (“A PERFECT PLACE TO STAY FOR THE AMERICA’S CUP!”) were 86ed, along with below-market-rate units and places where tenants had been jettisoned via the Ellis Act. On Dec. 6, whole units listed for more than the city’s 90-day yearly limit were deep-sixed. And, on Jan. 16, all the outliers will be cut, too; that includes the RVs, the camper vans, the tents in the backyard, unregistered postings, yurts atop warehouses and other “gentrification of homelessness”-worthy offers.

[dropcap]Masry [/dropcap]is confident that the settlement is being followed. After the first round of cullings, his office was deluged with calls querying about the Ellis Act — indicating that people offering short-term stays in sites where tenants had been evicted in this manner were being proactively booted off by Airbnb et al.

But how easy is it to evade the rules and offer up inappropriate sites to crash? Your humble narrator decided to give it a whirl and list the newsroom of Mission Local on Airbnb. Yes, for only $42 a night, you could stay beneath the table on the semi-carpeted floors of a real working newsroom! Exposed bricks! Exposed air ducts! A coffee machine! Heat! Keys to the bathroom provided by a put-upon Mission Local staffer! How can you afford to not stay here?

Sadly for comedic possibilities — but not for effective government — our hosting attempt was spurned by Airbnb, which now insists on a registration number from the city’s Office of Short-Term rentals before one sets up shop. The same goes for VRBO and Homeaway.

TripAdvisor, however, is not bound by the city’s settlement. And we were able to register the Mission Local office with them — but only for travelers willing to stay here for more than 30 days lest they violate San Francisco law. You can see the glorious screen capture of our successful attempt to rent out a rented office roughly the size of a Fiat 500 to up to six Italian tourists. But, sadly, fewer than 24 hours later, TripAdvisor suspended our account.

Our listing.

“This is the system at work,” noted Masry. Alas. And, come Jan. 16, “I generally expect that a lot of these sorts of outliers like tents and RVs should go away.”

San Francisco, however, isn’t an island. It’s a peninsula. And when outliers of all sorts are pushed away from here, they tend to roll up in parts nearby. If you’re dead-set on paying good money to sleep in an RV or tent or yurt and gentrifying the homeless experience, you can still do so across the bay.

In fact, here’s one proprietress in Berkeley offering a slice of the “glamping” life. “Glamping,” however, seems to be a malleable term, as the following stipulation would indicate: “If you opt to use the chamberpot, you MUST empty and rinse it daily.”

Yoooooo — fair enough. Piles of unwanted excrement certainly drain the glamor from sleeping in a stranger’s backyard.

Or on Division Street.  

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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    1. I believe you could get a registration number for your legit unit and then use it for illegal units or things like RVs or tents. But it’s a $250 non-refundable fee to even apply for a license, and if you’re caught doing illegal things it can be rescinded.

      The Jan. 16 cull will probably be pretty severe. It’s essentially every unwarranted/illegal posting that didn’t get cut in the first two rounds.

      For the purposes of this column, I didn’t make the $250 plunge. It is, again, non-refundable.