Film review of “Company Town”: how tech steamrolled San Francisco
Many hipsters and “new tech” enthusiasts are enraptured by the so-called “sharing economy” and its leading companies, such as Airbnb, Uber and Lyft. If you really believe that these companies have anything to do with “sharing,” then you really need to see Company Town.
That’s the name of a new riveting film by award-winning directors Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, which is opening in late October and early November for a limited run in the San Francisco-Bay area (see below for details on showings).
San Francisco, where these Silicon Valley companies have originated, has been the epicenter for a tech earthquake that has turned this iconic city upside down. A number of critical exposés have been written about the recent fate of this much-loved town where millions of tourists have “left their heart,” including Rebecca Solnit’s widely read essay “Google Invades,” and my recent book Raw Deal: How the ‘Uber Economy’ and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers. But Kaufman and Snitow’s film is the first to provide a cinematic treatment. So buy a bag of popcorn, take a seat and melt back for this descent into the city of St. Francis, once the home of offbeat poets, artists and other iconoclasts, now on its way to becoming a tech dystopia.
The directors chose an intriguing vehicle for telling their story — that of a local political campaign for a seat on the San Francisco city council (known as the Board of Supervisors). The storyline does a fine job in helping the viewer feel like they are there, on the ground, enjoying the visuals of San Francisco’s picturesque landscape while at the same time experiencing the ups and downs of a crucial campaign that will decide the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors, and hence will impact the future direction of the city. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
The two candidates for this seat, Julie Christensen and Aaron Peskin, engage in real-time, retail politicking. You see them shaking hands at rallies, handing out literature on street corners, visiting neighborhood groups and debating each other on the radio. The district they are jousting to represent is District 3, in the northeast corner of the city, which includes some of San Francisco’s wealthiest neighborhoods (Nob aka “Snob” Hill) and the Financial District, as well as Chinatown, Little Italy, the strip joints of the Barbary Coast quarter, and the waterfront including touristy Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.
Christiansen is the incumbent, appointed to fill a vacancy by Mayor Ed Lee to who is a big tech booster. And why shouldn’t the mayor be a Polonius of Silicon Valley? The mayor’s chief financial backer, a billionaire GOP investor named Ron Conway, is a big investor in Airbnb and other tech companies. Christiansen comes across as sincere and well-meaning, but also as incredibly naïve. She portrays herself as rooted in the community, yet is mostly oblivious to the tornado-like impacts that Airbnb and other tech companies are having all around her. She probably does as competent a job as possible to convince you that she is not simply a puppet controlled by the tech-toady mayor who appointed her. Unfortunately for her, her votes on the Board of Supervisors say otherwise.
Her opponent, Aaron Peskin, who previously had represented this district on the Board of Supervisors, comes across as a more compelling figure. He gives off the aura of someone who has a handle on both the problems and possible solutions. The problem is that Airbnb started out in 2008 as a good idea — allowing people to rent out a spare room in their homes to earn some extra cash. Not too many people have a problem with that. But it has morphed into something far more sinister. In recent years, it has been invaded by professional real estate operatives who are converting badly needed housing in San Francisco (as well as in hundreds of other cities) into Airbnb tourist hotels. In short, Airbnb has morphed into a giant loophole for these professionals, allowing them to evade long-standing city laws that previously had protected the local housing stock and evict thousands of tenants from their rent-controlled housing.
For example, various studies have found that in San Francisco 40 percent of Airbnb’s revenue as well as guest visits come from Airbnb hosts with multiple listings. Some of the hosts control dozens of properties, so these are not “regular people” renting out a spare room in their homes. They are property managers representing well-heeled real estate investors. The professionals comprise the fastest growing part of the Airbnb business model, yet Airbnb uses its “regular people” hosts as human shields, cynically portraying them as the face of their business when in fact increasingly the professionals are where the company makes its profits.
Peskin is hip to their game, and acts in the film as a sort of “wise beard” (yes, he has a beard), exposing the truth.
“The problem,” says Peskin, “is that a handful of tech billionaires have decided to invest in the business of politics. And they are interested in controlling mayors and supervisors.” And so Peskin has returned from retirement to run for his old seat, and is viewed by his supporters as a kind of savior that has returned to, as Peskin says in one of his campaign speeches, “put all of us back in City Hall.”
Perhaps the most moving part of the film is when the camera’s eye follows a young Chinatown resident, Jeffrey Kwong, as he makes his rounds through his community, allowing the viewer to see the utter destruction that Airbnb is wreaking through this century-old neighborhood. He visits people who are in the process of being evicted — the elderly, single mothers — simply because they don’t have the financial resources and pugnacious personalities — as well as in some cases the English-language skills — to fight against the greedy landlords. Jeffrey was born and raised in Chinatown, in a poor tenement with his family who shared a bathroom and kitchen down the hall with five other families. It was a poor life, but a good one that allowed immigrants to pursue their version of the American dream. But now these hard-working Chinese-Americans are being steamrolled by the new tech-fed glitterati.
In San Francisco, a vague provision of landlord-tenant law allows one to be evicted for creating a “nuisance.” Such nuisance evictions used to be rarely deployed, but now have become commonplace. In Chinatown, what constitutes a nuisance, according to the evictors, are acts like hanging your Chinese New Year’s decorations on the door of one’s apartment; or hanging one’s laundry outside from the balcony of your small apartment, a practice that goes back decades. As outrageous as it sounds, once the tenants are given their notice of eviction, it becomes difficult to stop the steamroller without hiring an expensive lawyer.
Much of the film focuses on the battle over Airbnb, but Uber and ridesharing also get some of the attention. The directors’ touch is light, allowing their interview subjects to speak in a natural way with minimal narration. But the film’s impact is heavy with portent, because it lays into the lap of the viewers an overwhelming question — what price should we pay for technological innovation? And who should pay that price?
The film does not beat the viewer over the head, instead the camera acts like its own sort of tour guide, taking you on visits with a lot of people who you might not normally meet. It lets the viewer hear what these people have to say, and draw your own conclusions.
The conclusions are pretty inescapable, however. I first became aware of how sneaky and deceptive Airbnb is when I became an Airbnb host. I had watched media personality Katie Couric interview Airbnb’s 34 year old billionaire CEO, Brian Chesky, and ask him if his company inspects its hosts’ homes for fire and safety hazards. Chesky replied, “We want to be a gold standard” — but in the next breath denigrated the codes and regulations as being “20th-century laws, or sometimes even 19th-century laws, in the 21st century.” Pressed further, Chesky touted the benefits of Airbnb’s rating system, in which guests and hosts all rate each other, and claimed that he has hired hundreds of employees “devoted exclusively to safety.”
So to test Airbnb’s safety system, I signed up as a host. I took a few photos of my house, inside and out, uploaded them to the Airbnb website, and within 15 minutes my place was “live” as an Airbnb rental. No background check, no verifying my ID, no confirming my personal details, no questions asked. Not even any contact with a real human from their “trust and safety” team. I could have used photos of my neighbor’s house, or even photos from the website of Better Homes and Gardens. Within an hour, I had my first inquiry from a guest. Within a couple of months, I had over a dozen reservation requests that would have netted me at least $4,000 in short-term rental income. This had the makings of a seriously lucrative enterprise. Indeed, an accidentally leaked memo from huge real-estate developer Coldwell Banker Commercial estimated that a landlord could more than double net annual income by renting to Airbnb tourists rather than to local residents.
I was both impressed and appalled at how easy Airbnb’s website made it.
When Couric asked Chesky about fire safety, instead of outlining his company’s inspection procedures he replied that Airbnb, a company valued at $25 billion, offers free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to its hosts. When Couric pushed a bit further, Chesky talked about their “self-administered” system. “We want to make sure that the codes and regulations are modernized,” he said.
Is that so? I decided to take Chesky up on his “gold standard” offer of receiving a free and “self-administered” smoke and carbon monoxide detector for my Airbnb home. As instructed, I requested one via the Airbnb website, and my query received the briefest of e-mail responses, directing me to another Airbnb webpage. But on that page, instead of offering me a free detector it offered me a free “Emergency Safety Card,” saying I could use it to “list emergency numbers, exit routes, and other resources” for my guests.
That’s it? It turns out that the offer for a free smoke detector had expired faster than a Groupon coupon. But the Airbnb representative didn’t mention that. Nor did Chesky in his interview with Couric.
The real tragedy is that Airbnb knows what its negative impacts are, and could easily remedy the situation. With one stroke of the computer mouse, Airbnb could “evict the evictors” — de-list from its website any professional landlords or property managers operating multiple properties as tourist hotels. It has the data and knows who they are. The company could cooperate with the San Francisco law that requires hosts to register with the city, just like a real bed-and-breakfast operation has to do, by de-listing any hosts that aren’t registered (a year and a half after the law’s passage, barely 20 percent of hosts have complied and Airbnb refuses to de-list them). Airbnb could share its in-house data that cities need to regulate these commercial transactions, instead of denying that request (some kind of “sharing,” eh?). No, this fast-growing company and its politically-connected investors have shown no interest in doing anything they think might hurt their golden goose.
But more and more cities are getting wise to both the problems as well as the promise of companies like Airbnb and Uber. Regulations will follow, and I do believe that eventually the good that these services provide will be made even better because the very real problems they cause will have been reduced.
When that day comes, we will have films like Company Town to thank for making us aware of the de-hyped thorny realities created by the “disruptors” of the digital age. This high-minded film lets the personal stories it has uncovered speak the truth to us in a way that “disrupts the disruptors.” Naturally that will cause the disruptors to whine and complain, but when that happens you know you are doing something right, and that’s the best kind of story-telling. So get your popcorn, your sugar-free pop, and head over to the movies. Below are dates and locations for where you can catch Kaufman and Snitow’s film, and here is a link to the trailer: http://www.snitow-kaufman.org/category/films/
October 28-Nov. 3 — Roxie Theater in San Francisco
October 28-Nov 3 — Elmwood Theater in Berkeley
Nov. 6 — one day only at the Rafael in San Rafael