A new startup lets you Airbnb out any room in your house that you’re not already Airnbnb-ing out, WeWork-style, but it's drawing scrutiny from local regulators.
Flyers have been appearing lately in Mission District and other neighborhoods’ mailboxes declaring “Dining Rooms Needed, Earn $500-$1,500/month.” This low-budget marketing campaign comes courtesy of a new startup called Cobo, the latest sharing-economy scheme that lets you short-term rent parts of your home as office space, or rent space to work in someone else's dining room, living room, basement, or what have you. But Mission Local reports that the questionable legality of this so-called “Airbnb for Coworking” has drawn the attention of the Planning Department, Zoning Administrator, and City Attorney.
The authenticity of Cobo’s marketing is highly questionable, including their website’s obviously Photoshopped Dolores Park view photo — taken from a vantage point that anyone who’s been to the park knows does not have a house there. In fact, a simple reverse image search shows us that this living room is swiped from a stock photo, as evidenced by the exact same furniture, with Dolores Park and happy techies merely Photoshopped in.
There’s more. Scrolling down, we see a probably bogus user review from “Jack, social media consultant” who claims “With Cobo, I completely crushed my commute.” (You know, how normal people talk!) But a reverse image search of “Jack” shows that his image is also used by Bedroom Lighting Tips expert Benjamin Lin, and is a stock image. On Cobo’s Become a Host page, we see rave reviews from “Amelie and Melissa” who supposedly “host in the Mission.” This is probably fiction, as their picture is a royalty-free Shutterstock image called “Happy women at work discussing new startup project with laptop.”
Sure, plenty of websites use stock images. But these people and places are presented as real San Franciscans at real local places, which they are not. Cobo declined to comment on anything to Mission Local because they “don’t want to do advance press,” and their platform says it's in “private beta.” But the company is clearly courting customers, moving fast, and breaking whatever things that disruptive tech companies break while chasing ever more VC funding.
“I have the same worries I had with Airbnb,” the Mission’s supervisor Hillary Ronen tells Mission Local. “These homes were not meant to be offices. I worry about it escalating the already egregious cost of housing. I worry about issues that come up in terms of tenants and evictions. I worry about how it impacts congestion and parking.
“My list of concerns is quite large. And I am also sick of everyone and their mother creating every new experiment for the Mission. The Mission is dealing with enough issues as it is.”
But as Uber and Airbnb have shown, it is possible to start a business that flouts city law and then play footsie with regulators long enough to accumulate funding and get legitimized. Just like those aforementioned startups, Cobo is eager to monetize growing income inequality and the ever-shrinking pool of legitimate, salaried work. And since freelancers and gig workers face far tighter budgets than the money-losing startups who paradoxically drive up the cost of living, there could be a sad but lucrative value in exploiting people’s need to pay their mortgages, or the lack of employer support that personifies the contemporary tech economy.