Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Closing of the American Mind

The Closing of the American Mind

There are dangerous signs that the U.S. is turning its back on the principles of a free and open society that fostered the nation’s rise.


By
CHARLES KOCHJuly 21, 2016 6:53 p.m. ET
974 COMMENTS

I was born in the midst of the Great Depression, when no one could imagine the revolutionary technological advances that we now take for granted. Innovations in countless fields have transformed society and radically improved individual well-being, especially for the least fortunate. Every American’s life is now immeasurably better than it was 80 years ago.

What made these dramatic improvements possible was America’s uniquely free and open society, which has brought the country to the cusp of another explosion of life-changing innovation. But there are dangerous signs that the U.S. is turning its back on the principles that foster such advances, particularly in education, business and government. Which path will the country take?

When I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s, I quickly came to appreciate that scientific and technological progress requires the free and open exchange of ideas. The same holds true for moral and social progress. I have spent more than a half-century trying to apply this lesson in business and my personal life.

It was once widely accepted that progress depends on people challenging and testing each other’s hypotheses. This leads to the creation of knowledge that, when shared, inspires others and spurs the innovation that moves society forward and improves lives. It is a spontaneous process that is deeply collaborative and dependent on the contributions of others. Recall Sir Isaac Newton’s statement that he achieved so much by “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Scientific progress in seemingly disparate fields creates opportunities for fusion, which is where the greatest innovations often occur. The British writer Matt Ridley has brilliantly described this process as “ideas having sex.” Today, this creation-from-coupling is evident in, for example, the development of driverless cars, which combine advances in transportation and artificial intelligence. When seen through this prism, the opportunities for life-altering innovation are limitless.

Despite our enormous potential for further progress, a clear majority of Americans see a darker future. Some 56% believe their children’s lives will be worse off than their own, according to a January CNN poll. ARasmussen poll released the following month found that 46% believe America’s best days are behind it. Little more than a third believe better days lie ahead.

I empathize with this fear. The U.S. is already far down the path to becoming a less open and free society, and the current cultural and political atmosphere threatens to make the situation worse: Growing attacks on free speech and free association, hostile rhetoric toward immigrants, fear that global trade impoverishes rather than enriches, demands that innovators in cutting-edge industries first seek government permission.

This trajectory takes the U.S. further away from the brighter future that is otherwise within reach. Resisting calls to exclude, divide or restrict—and promoting a free and open society—ought to be the great moral cause of these times. The most urgent tasks involve the key institutions of education, business and government.

Education in America, and particularly higher education, has become increasingly hostile to the free exchange of ideas. On many campuses, a climate of intellectual conformity has replaced open debate and inquiry, stifling discussion on a host of topics ranging from history to science to economics. Dissenters are demonized, ostracized or otherwise treated with scorn and derision. This disrupts the process of discovery and challenge that is at the root of human progress. Holland embraced this philosophy—best expressed by the phrase “Listen even to the other side”—in the 17th century, contributing to it becoming the most prosperous country in the world at the time.

Similarly, in business the proliferation of corporate welfare wastes resources and closes off opportunity for newcomers. It takes many forms—direct subsidies, anticompetitive regulations, mandates, tax credits and carve-outs—all of which tip the scales in favor of established businesses and industries. The losers are invariably the new, disruptive and innovative entrepreneurs who drive progress, along with everyone who stands to benefit from their work. Just ask the citizens of Austin, Texas, who recently lost access to Uber after a campaign backed by its competitors in the taxi industry.

Government, which often has strong incentives to stifle the revolutionary advances that could transform lives, may be the most dangerous. The state often claims to keep its citizens safe, when it is actually inhibiting increased individual well-being. See, for example, the FDA’s astronomically expensive and time-consuming drug-approval process, which University of Chicago professor Sam Peltzman argues has caused “more sickness and death than it prevented.” These kinds of harmful barriers to life-enhancing advances exist at every level of government.

Unleashing innovation, no matter what form it takes, is the essential component of truly helping people improve their lives. The material and social transformations in my own days have been nothing short of astonishing, with a marked improvement in well-being for all Americans. If the country can unite around a vision for a tolerant, free and open society, it can achieve even greater advances, and a brighter future for everyone, in the years ahead.

Mr. Koch is chairman and CEO of Koch Industries and the author of “Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies” (Crown Business, 2015).

Most Wanted: San Francisco flyers name and shame Airbnb hosts

Most Wanted: San Francisco flyers name and shame Airbnb hosts



Posters in the city’s Chinatown claim Airbnb landlords are ‘destroying affordable housing for immigrant, minority and low income families’
Flyers in San Francisco’s Chinatown feature the names and photographs of individuals accused of ‘Airbnb’ing our community’. Photograph: Courtesy of Patrick Connors


Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco

@juliacarriew


Friday 22 July 2016 06.00 EDTLast modified on Friday 22 July 201613.29 EDT



San Francisco’s gentrification wars have long fostered a certain element willing to make the debate over affordable housing extremely personal.

During the first dot-com boom, members of the “Mission Yuppie Eradication Project” posted flyers encouraging residents of the once working-class Latino neighborhood to “vandalize yuppie cars”. During the current tech boom, asevictions soared, activists began using stencils to paint the sidewalks in front of certain buildings with an image of a suitcase and a message: “Tenants here forced out.”


‘Tech tax’: San Francisco mulls plan for taxing the rich to house the poor



But throughout all the turmoil, San Francisco’s Chinatown – 24 crowded blocks that have endured as a point of entry for generations of low-income Chinese immigrants – has remained largely insulated from the rancor.

Until now.

In recent weeks, “Wanted” flyers have been posted around the neighborhood featuring the names and photographs of 12 individuals. The crime in question? “Airbnb’ing our community” and “destroying affordable housing for immigrant, minority, & low income families.”

Unlike a flyer posted recently in the Mission District that featured the heads of various tech CEOs, including Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, impaled on spikes, the Chinatown flyer names and shames individual Airbnb hosts.
FacebookTwitterPinterest A poster in the Mission district of San Francisco takes aim at big tech CEOs. Photograph: Julia Carrie Wong for the Guardian

“It expresses a growing sentiment and a reality that the community is being exploited by speculators and unscrupulous players in the housing market,” said city supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents the district that includes Chinatown.


“There’s no question that there are an increasing amount of illegal short-term rentals throughout the city and in Chinatown.”

Indeed, Peskin said that just two weeks ago, he observed three French people leaving a Chinatown apartment building at 10am, rolling suitcases in tow.
‘Like a village’

The fact that a group of tourists staying in a residential building in the city that is home to Airbnb seemed remarkable is indicative of how insulated Chinatown has been from the market forces rocking the rest of the city.

“Chinatown has generally been preserved and defended against gentrification,” said Joyce Lam of the Chinese Progressive Association, a group that organizes workers and tenants in the neighborhood.
FacebookTwitterPinterest The Chinatown ‘Wanted’ poster. Photograph: Courtesy of Patrick Connors

Strict zoning laws enacted during the 1980s have protected the stock of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, which serve as low cost housing for newly arrived immigrants, as well as many elderly Chinese Americans. With their shared kitchens and bathrooms, Lam said the SROs can feel “like a village” to the multi-generation families crowded into single rooms.

But units that once changed hands solely through word of mouth or Chinese language flyers posted on the street are now popping up on Craigslist, Airbnb, and other short-term rental sites, as landlords have realized that they can earn more money renting to college graduates, single adults and white people, Lam said.

“It’s changed the fabric of the SROs,” Lam said, especially since the new residents often cannot communicate with Cantonese-speaking tenants. “It’s a different kind of feeling.”

The average rent of SRO rooms has increased as well, from $610 in 2013, to $970 in 2015, according to a survey conducted by the Chinatown Community Development Center. Those figures are enticingly low in a city where theaverage rent was $3,907 as of June, but increasingly unaffordable for many low-income immigrant families.

“Contrary to the posters, we don’t see the problem as being individual players,” Lam said, adding that her organization supports citywide reform legislation aimed at strengthening short-term rental regulation.

“We are more interested in having a meaningful discussion about San Francisco’s longstanding housing issues than responding to anonymous attacks on individual San Franciscans,” a spokesperson for Airbnb said in a statement.


The people on the poster

The appeal of Chinatown to non-traditional residents is described on Airbnb’s website, where a number of Chinatown listings feature photographs of the neighborhood’s famous Dragon Gate and paper lanterns.


“Cramped. Crowded. Dingy. Delightful,” reads the caption on Airbnb’s neighborhood description of Chinatown.

One Airbnb host who lists four rentals in Chinatown defended his preference for tourists over tenants.

“We rather leave rooms and apartment empty rather than renting because of rent control,” the host wrote to the Guardian. “Once tenants move in they own the property ... they have more rights than property owners.”

That host was not featured on the “Wanted” poster. None of the people on the “Wanted” poster who currently have Chinatown units listed on Airbnb responded to queries.

Justin Hobbs, who is on the poster, said: “I’ve seen this flyer and have reported it to AirBnB and will be filing a police report. If I’m able to find the creator of the flyer, there will also be a lawsuit filed for slander as this is completely untrue.”

Hobbs said that he lives in Nob Hill, not Chinatown, and he does not rent out his apartment, which is his only residence.

Another one of the people on the poster, who asked not to be identified, was also frustrated by it. The individual said that he no longer lives in San Francisco, but had used Airbnb once, several years ago, and has long since deactivated his account.

“I don’t see that what I did was criminal,” he said. “The reason why I left San Francisco is because it was way over gentrified and it was impossible to live as an artist, and now to get blamed as a gentrifier is just funny.”

Jeff Chen, who was also featured on the poster, was more sanguine about being singled out. Chen, who moved to a different part of the city in May, said that he rented his apartment a few times on Airbnb last summer, when he was traveling for work.

“I don’t really feel good about it [the poster], but I can see why members of the community are concerned about the housing situation,” Chen said. “I see stories about people who do [Airbnb] as a business, and I can see how that would drive up housing costs … I actually do identify with those concerns.”

Unfair “Fair Housing”

In this episode of the 10 Blocks podcast, City Journal editor Brian Anderson and Howard Husock discuss the Obama administration’s efforts to locate affordable-housing units in Westchester County, NY and changes to HUD’s mission nationwide.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Affordable housing policies become a divisive issue in New York's Westchester County, just as it has in other municipalities across the country.  The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has pushed Westchester to finance hundreds of subsidized housing units and market them to poor minorities.  While the goal of deconcentrating poverty has merit, is the way the Feds are going about it going to do more harm than good?  Joining me to discuss what's going on in Westchester and how it could affect other communities is Howard Husock, Vice President for Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.  His article from City Journal Spring issue is entitled "Unfair 'Fair Housing.'"  Howard, thank you for joining.
Howard Husock: Good to be with you, Brian.
Brian Anderson: Your piece opens up in Chappaqua, the wealthy Westchester town where Bill and Hillary Clinton have a home.  Describe for listeners exactly what's happening there with regard to this affordable housing policy battle.
Howard Husock: Chappaqua is a village in the County of Westchester, which is a relatively affluent, but not uniformly affluent, county in New York State, just north of New York City.  And the Department of Housing and Urban Development is pushing, as you put it, Westchester, because of a lawsuit, to locate subsidized housing, low-income housing, in affluent parts of the county.  And you don't get a lot more affluent than Chappaqua.  It's leafy, it's tony, its semi-rural.  And the idea that HUD has is that these sorts of places would be good homes for poorer people who would benefit from the good schools and good public facilities in a place like Chappaqua.  And Chappaqua is just one front, a front line of this happening all over Westchester County, and the idea is to build a complex near the train station there that would include some low-income housing.  HUD's idea is this ought to be a norm across the country.  As HUD would put it, that no child should have his fate decided by virtue of the zip code in which he lives, so it's a small example of a larger philosophical movement, if you will.
Brian Anderson: And behind that philosophical movement is this idea of deconcentrating poverty.  What's your view of that and perhaps you could explain a little bit what that means.
Howard Husock: Deconcentrating poverty, I think, is an idea that has sprung up from the failure of public housing, and the idea that public housing failed because it was a concentration of poverty where all sorts of bad things happened and couldn't be controlled.  And so if the poor were dispersed among better off people who would be role models and would allow the poor to benefit from better schools and public accommodations, parks, recreation programs, that this deconcentration would benefit both the wealthy and the poor, I guess you would say.  It's an extraordinary change, however, from the original mission—and one has to wonder whether the officials at HUD in Washington even take this on board—it's an extraordinary change from the original mission of HUD, which was to improve urban neighborhoods.  In effect HUD is now giving up on the idea that poor neighborhoods can be good neighborhoods and we have to spread out the poor, and by this they certainly largely mean the minority poor, because that's to whom there's going to be a special outreach, at least in Westchester County, rather than taking the steps necessary to make sure that poor neighborhoods can be okay places to live.  So this deconcentration movement is a big change and should be appreciated as such.
Brian Anderson: How much of this, though, is also about the fact that places like Chappaqua don't have large minority populations?  In other words, is part of the policy aimed at making these tony suburbs more diverse?
Howard Husock: I think there's no doubt that there's a sense that there's something unjust about what you might call the American de facto system of housing, that there are poor neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods, and neighborhoods in between, but there are certainly enclaves of the quite wealthy where there are very low numbers of minorities, although in Westchester County the numbers of minorities in some of the most famous, wealthy places there—Chappaqua, Scarsdale—are in proportion to the number of very well-off minorities, there just aren't that many well-off minorities.  In other words, there's not really evidence that if a black potential homebuyer wants to buy in Chappaqua that he or she could expect to be turned away on the basis of race.  In fact there's no expectation of that.  But, there is something about that picture that rubs HUD, I think, and the Obama administration, the wrong way.
Brian Anderson: How have the black residents of towns in Westchester, like Chappaqua, the ones already living there, reacted to the idea that there will be these subsidized units being constructed?
Howard Husock: Well, I think, Brian, we have to put that in the content of how one becomes upwardly mobile in America.  And I like to think of housing as a kind of a ladder of neighborhoods and one goes from poorer, to better off, to slightly even better off, and maybe beyond that by making a series of good life decisions.  That could include being employed, it could include being married, it could include saving one's money and deferring certain gratifications.  And anybody, black or white, who makes the effort and takes the steps necessary to buy a home, to save the money and make the life decisions necessary to buy that home, is quite protective of what one has achieved, and proud of it.  And so when this Westchester decision was originally reported on by The New York Times, there was a flood of postings by African-American, self-identified African-American residents in the county, I should say, from—not from Chappaqua itself, but from some other places, who said, well, wait a minute.  I did what I had to do to get here and now others are going to be, in effect, given the same thing that I had to work very hard to achieve for myself.  And so what they are saying is their achievement is, in effect, being devalued by the government.  And I think they are quite concerned, especially minority residents, that there will be a potential for tension amongst residents because classically, in the sociological literature, Americans get along on the basis of their economic and educational commonalities.  If you have minority residents who share educational backgrounds and socioeconomic status with their neighbors, the chances of everybody getting along well are quite high.  If you introduce much poorer residents, there's the chance for tension, and I think that's what those minority residents are quite concerned about.
Brian Anderson: You say in the piece that you'd like to see policymakers encourage upward mobility rather than trying to deconcentrate poverty by forcing people to live in certain neighborhoods.  What do you mean by that and how should policymakers go about improving chances for mobility?
Howard Husock: Well, I think we have to circle back to at least the goal, perhaps not some of the means that were chosen historically that HUD originally had and, repeating myself, to make poor neighborhoods good neighborhoods.  But what do I meant by that?  That means that, first of all, you need public safety in poor neighborhoods, so that those who work hard, play by the rules, save money, don't have to worry about robbery and home invasions and the other things that in addition to terrorizing people deplete their wealth, makes it harder for them to get ahead.  We are also saying that there are ways to improve public education which has to be at the bedrock of marking poor neighborhoods good neighborhoods and encouraging upward mobility.  And we're seeing charter schools and poor neighborhoods can work very well.  It's a sort of divisiveness in policy circles right now, which is quite unfortunate.  It doesn't have to be only charter schools.  We need schools that work well and we need good—public good, as the economists say.  That means the parks have to be good, the streets have to be clean.  Just because you have a low-income neighborhood doesn't mean it has to be a bad neighborhood.  It can be the launching point for upward mobility.  And let me just speak for a moment about what's practical.  Right now we spend about $19 billion dollars on housing vouchers that allow low-income residents, like those who would be moving into these subsidized units in Westchester, in all likelihood, 2.4 million, roughly, households get these vouchers.  Well, there's about 45 million Americans living in poverty.  We can't, as a practical matter, conceive of giving all those people housing vouchers.  In fact there's a new book calledEviction, which urges that as a policy.  It seems impractical in our current fiscal climate in Washington, and I think ill advised as well, for some of the reasons that I've been mentioning.  But therefore, if our goal is to help as many of the poor advance as possible, we have to return to the idea of giving people the ways, means, incentives to advance on their own.
Brian Anderson: The final question.  Here we are at the end of the Obama years, and this is related to what you just said, I think.  What is the current state of public housing and the public housing debate in America?
Howard Husock: Well, public housing—people think of public housing as physical public housing projects.  They've not been growing.  In fact their ranks have been diminished by being torn down.  And housing vouchers have been increasing in number.
Brian Anderson: And the housing vouchers are now a great portion of public housing?  Or...
Howard Husock: Yes.  There are more receiving housing vouchers.  In fact we spend more on housing vouchers than we spend on traditional cash public assistance.  It's become a really large safety net program, if you will.  The public housing, itself—physical public housing continues to be in declining physical condition.  So, for instance, here in New York there are 178,000 public housing units and an estimated $18 billion dollars in capital repairs that need to be done.  In fact, the U.S. Attorney's office is on the verge of suing the city because of the poor conditions of public housing.  These are tremendous ironies, just tremendous ironies.  Public housing was meant to replace slums, and it's become our most persistent slum.  That said, in terms of your question, I think there's very little focus on this.  And we see long-term poverty among single parents and their children concentrated in public housing.  Median stay in New York public housing is almost 17 years.  Median housing voucher stay is almost nine years.  So we see long-term poverty being supported, in effect, by the Public Housing and Housing Subsidy Program.  And you know, frankly, if you're on a housing subsidy, it doesn't even pay you to earn more.  You pay 30% of your income in rent and the more your income goes up the more rent you pay.  So we've got a dependency trap going, and I wish there were more attention being paid to it.
Brian Anderson: If you enjoyed today's discussion, check out Howard Husock's latest essay, "Unfair 'Fair Housing.'"  It's on our website, www.City-Journal.org, and it's in our latest issue.  Additionally, we'd love to hear your thoughts on today's episode.  Tweet your comments and questions to @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks.  You can also make suggestions for other City Journal editors and other topics you'd like to hear from in future podcasts.  Thanks for listening and thanks, Howard, for joining us.
Howard Husock: Thank you, Brian.
READ LESS

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Marin approves workplan to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing



Marin County Supervisors approve of a work plan to implement HUD  "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) in Marin County.  The plan aims to create "racial and economic  equity" in all areas of Marin.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

HUD's "Affirmative Further Fair Housing" Rule in Five Minutes.



Clarification: Westchester V Hud was settled in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appesls in NY. The Final Decision quoted Chief Justice John Roberts. This short video describes the effects on local communities if they accept HUD money for fair housing or urban development under their new rule, Affirmatively Furthering fair Housing. AFFH, as a term has existed for many years, the ruling went into efect July, 2015.

The Ritter Center and the Crime Heat Map



Here is a quick video of the crime heat maps in Downtown San Rafael and the proposed location for the Ritter Center in North San Rafael. The crime statistics tell the story.

See the maps at http://www.srpd.org/crimereports/

Marinwood CSD Board refuses leadership on Ritter Center relocation.


The county of Marin and San Rafael is considering moving Ritter Center homeless services to 67 Mark Drive in North San Rafael that borders residential areas.  The Marinwood CSD provides emergency services to this area WITHOUT COMPENSATION and will be the primary responder.   We also own thousands of acres of open space where we have had problems with homeless encampments and fires.   

Clearly the move will have huge impact yet NO ONE on the CSD board wants to act to protect the Marinwood CSD's interest.  Leah Kleinman Green even admits that she SUPPORTS the move but she has not heard from her neighbors.  Naylor, Kai and Shea seem concerned but will do nothing to make San Rafael and the County of the aware of the financial impacts it will have on the Marinwood CSD.   

Where are our leaders?!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Spy Cam at the Marinwood CSD

While videotape recording of public meetings is allowed by the Brown Act, SECRET videotaping with hidden cameras without consent violates California law, most especially when it is used to record private conversations.

The July 12, 2016 Marinwood CSD meeting


California Recording Law

Note: This page covers information specific to California. For general information concerning the use of recording devices see the Recording Phone Calls, Conversations, Meetings and Hearingssection of this guide.

California Wiretapping Law

California's wiretapping law is a "two-party consent" law. California makes it a crime to record or eavesdrop on any confidential communication, including a private conversation or telephone call, without the consent of all parties to the conversation. See Cal. Penal Code § 632. The statuteapplies to "confidential communications" -- i.e., conversations in which one of the parties has an objectively reasonable expectation that no one is listening in or overhearing the conversation. See Flanagan v. Flanagan, 41 P.3d 575, 576-77, 578-82 (Cal. 2002).  A California appellate court has ruled that this statute applies to the use of hidden video cameras to record conversations as well. See California v. Gibbons, 215 Cal. App. 3d 1204 (Cal Ct. App. 1989).


At the June 8, 2106 Marinwood CSD meeting,  a citizen requests accurate meeting notes instead of political spin documents now provided to the public.  He is denied the request by Justin Kai who says it is not required under Rosenbergs rules.  Kai admits that the district has been discussing the implementation of video in private.  

Why not discuss video recording in an open session??


For the record, the Marinwood CSD is denying that it had anything to do with surveillance video on July 12, 2016.






Sunday, July 17, 2016

Kurtz: Plan Bay Area is a War on the Suburbs

FABLE: The Blind Men and the Elephant

 A picture of 6 blind men feeling an elephant for the first time and what they are imagining in their minds.

John Godfrey Saxe's ( 1816-1887) version of the famous Indian legend,


It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Elizabeth Warren takes on Airbnb, urging scrutiny of large-scale renters

Elizabeth Warren takes on Airbnb, urging scrutiny of large-scale renters



Senator wants the federal government to investigate the extent to which the short-term lodging market actually consists of commercial rental firms
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plea to the federal government: ‘We are concerned that short-term rentals may be exacerbating housing shortages and driving up the cost of housing.’ Photograph: Gary Cameron/Reuters



Senator Elizabeth Warren has urged the federal government to investigate Airbnb and other short-term rental companies in a move that experts say marks an unprecedented step in US lawmakers’ formal scrutiny of the “sharing economy”.

The progressive senator from Massachusetts, who has taken on a high-profile rolein the presidential race, co-signed a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Wednesday, requesting that the agency “study and quantify” the extent to which the short-term lodging market consists of “persons or firms acting in a commercial manner by renting out entire residences or multiple residences simultaneously”.

Analysis How a failed attempt to get porn off the internet protects Airbnb from the law
The story of Airbnb’s current battle with San Francisco over regulation actually begins with a senator who prayed to control ‘the pollution’ of internet porn

The letter, which also raises concerns about racial discrimination through Airbnb, lends weight to some of the central criticisms of the controversial home-sharing tech company, which has faced an intensifying backlash in recent years.

It is the latest example of how lawmakers are turning their attention to the practices of tech firms in and around San Francisco, which are propelling an economic boom but raising challenging questions for regulators.

Opponents argue that Airbnb, a platform that allows users to rent out their homes to strangers, is aggravating housing crises in cities across the country by flooding markets with short-term rentals and, as a result, reducing much-needed affordable housing.

While Airbnb claims that many of its users are occasionally renting out rooms to make extra cash, some experts who have studied the limited data available argue that the platform is allowing people to operate sophisticated hotel businesses while dodging taxes and other key regulations.

Warren’s letter – co-authored by senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Dianne Feinstein of California – states that the distinction between “commercial” operations on Airbnb is “critical to Congress and state and local lawmakers as we seek to assess the wide-ranging impact of the short-term rental industry”.

“[W]e are concerned that short-term rentals may be exacerbating housing shortages and driving up the cost of housing in our communities,” the lettercontinues.

“Furthermore, we are concerned that communities and consumers may be put at risk through violations of sensible health, safety, and zoning regulations under state and local law.”

The senators’ inquiry, which mentions Airbnb competitors HomeAway, VRBO and Flipkey, also notes complaints about the alleged “widespread discriminationagainst African-American guests” by Airbnb hosts. On Twitter, black users have recently shared stories of facing rejections from potential hosts with the viral hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

While Airbnb has fought with numerous local governments working to adopt stricter regulations, including its hometown of San Francisco, the senators’ letter appears to be the first formal step by federal lawmakers to launch a serious inquiry into the company’s operations.

“The fact that they’ve written to a federal agency is hugely significant,” said Steven Hill, a critic of the sharing economy, who has written about the consequences of companies like Airbnb and Uber avoiding regulations.


‘Tech tax’: San Francisco mulls plan for taxing the rich to house the poor


“It reflects the reality that Airbnb has been ‘disruptive’, as they like to put it, not only in good ways, but in bad ways, too,” Hill said. “It’s a corroboration of what myself and other critics have been saying – that this is not just an enterprise where you let someone rent out a spare room and make some extra money. This has become a major commercial enterprise.”

The letter cites data that supports this argument.

In New York, the attorney general found that “commercial users”, meaning those with three or more unique units, accounted for a disproportionate share of the revenue generated from Airbnb rentals. The 2014 report also indicated that 72% of Airbnb units in New York City appeared to violate state and local law, the letter notes.

The letter further questions Airbnb’s reluctance to release data and its seemingly inconsistent collection of taxes.
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“We believe the FTC is best positioned to address this data gap in an unbiased manner.”

Warren, who has been rumored to be a potential vice-presidential candidatepick of Hillary Clinton, has previously raised concerns about the impact that the “gig economy” is having on workers.

The FTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chris Lehane, head of policy for Airbnb, defended the company’s record in a statement on Wednesday.

“The vast majority of our hosts in Massachusetts, California, Hawaii and across the county are middle class people who depend on home sharing as a way to address economic inequality,” Lehane said, arguing that many hosts “depend on the on the extra money they make from home sharing to make ends meet”.

He added: “We welcome any opportunity to work with lawmakers and regulators who want to learn more about how home sharing helps the middle class address the issue of economic inequality.”