Airbnb wages $8 million campaign to defeat San Francisco measure

By Heather Somerville

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Airbnb has spent more than $8 million and hired a top political operative to defeat a San Francisco initiative on the ballot Tuesday that could threaten the growth of one of the most valuable global technology companies.

Proposition F, which would limit short-term rentals, was brought by affordable housing advocates fed up with the city's housing stock being used as rentals for tourists while residents face skyrocketing rents and evictions.

For Airbnb, a defeat in its hometown of San Francisco would be mostly a symbolic blow. Should similar measures be introduced elsewhere, however, the company could face serious financial consequences.

At stake is its ability to continue adding rentals at the same speed, increase revenue and maintain its $25.5 billion valuation, all of which fall under greater scrutiny as it moves closer to an initial public offering.

Airbnb appears to be winning. A poll conducted Oct. 25-27 found 55 percent of respondents planning to vote against the measure, which would restrict short-term rentals to 75 nights per year and give neighbors greater power to sue rental property owners.

The poll was done by David Binder Research for the No on F campaign, funded by Airbnb.

The campaign Airbnb orchestrated against Prop. F, outspending supporters by nearly 30 times, suggests how fearful the company is.

"It doesn't want to give (regulators), or community activists, ideas that they can take on Airbnb," said Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel research firm Atmosphere Research Group.

Airbnb used the battle to craft its playbook for other political challenges, said Chris Lehane, its global policy chief.

"It will inform us of not only how we work in San Francisco but around the world," said Lehane, a political strategist who managed scandals during the Clinton administration.

In San Francisco, Airbnb spent almost $2 million on a campaign that organized more than 400 volunteers to knock on doors.

Prop. F alone would not have a significant effect on Airbnb's growth. There are about 5,000 Airbnb rentals in San Francisco, compared with about 20,000 in New York or 60,000 in Paris.

But other communities are watching.

The Prop. F campaign, which raised about $300,000 from hotel unions and affordable housing advocates, has discussed its proposal with officials and housing advocates in New York - whose city council is weighing restrictions on short-term rentals - Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities, said coalition cofounder Dale Carlson.

(Editing by Steve Trousdale and Ken Wills)