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Airbnb’s Big Bait-and-Switch

The popular sharing economy pioneer responds to political pressure by purging its listings.
 
 
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Airbnb was in court in New York on Tuesday, battling with the state attorney general over the question of how much information about its “hosts” the company should be required to reveal to the state. The case has attracted much attention, because New York is simultaneously one of Airbnb’s biggest markets, and its most fiercely fought battleground with regulators. There’s plenty at stake — not least of which is Airbnb’s brand-new $10 billion valuation, following a $500 million round of investment  that closed last week. In 2013, Airbnb pulled in $250 million in revenue from its thousands of hosts. That’s real money.

Real money, in the “sharing” economy.

Airbnb and its advocates argue, with some justice, that the current laws regulating short-term rentals are outmoded and don’t fit the new business models nurtured by cloud computing and smartphones. That’s undoubtedly true, though as the New York Times’ David Streitfeld  wrote in a smart piece on Tuesday, the regulatory mess is at least partially the result of the fact that for “sharing economy” companies, “questions about safety, taxes and regulation have tended to be an afterthought.” Silicon Valley sees no problem with breaking the law first, and then lobbying to fix it later.

A “crowd-funded” ad organized by Peers.org, an outfit that advocates for sharing economy companies and was co-founded by an executive of Airbnb, declares that “we’re asking lawmakers for more sharing, not less. We want to play by the rules, but New York needs laws that are safe, fair, and clear. Support sharing. Fix the law.”

It would be nice if the Peers ad clarified that in the case of Airbnb, “sharing” actually means “short-term rentals,” but that horse left the barn a long time ago. Whatever we call  what happens when one person rents out living space to another, there is little doubt that there is significant political support, particularly among younger people, for a regulatory structure that is more friendly to how Airbnb conducts business. In Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood that has been witnessing its own Airbnb regulatory showdown, a slate of supporters of Airbnb rentals won election to a neighborhood council  last week.

But everyone agitating for laws more friendly to Airbnb should take a closer look at some of the details of the New York legal struggle. In the New York Times, Streitfeld points out that when the state attorney general’s office investigated exactly who was posting listings on the Airbnb platform, it discovered a funny thing.

On Jan. 31, there were 19,522 listings for New York City properties on Airbnb from 15,677 hosts, according to data the attorney general submitted to the court. But nearly a third of the listings were from only 12 percent of the hosts.

One Airbnb landlord had 127 listings in Manhattan on a single weekend last fall. Sixteen other landlords had at least 15 listings each.

By no stretch of the imagination can this be properly considered the “sharing economy.” The data prove that nearly a third of Airbnb’s New York listings were generated by landlords who were cashing in on the ability to make a profit from offering short-term hotel rentals without having to pay the normal costs borne by the hotel sector — taxes, safety compliance and so on.

Now, if I were one of the people mobilized by Peers.org to contact my congressional representative or state senator to lobby for laws more accommodating to Airbnb, I might look at those numbers and wonder what, exactly, I’ve been supporting.

Airbnb responded to the data with a purge. On Sunday, Airbnb’s director of public policy, David Hantman, noted in a blog post that the company was rushing to clean up its listings.

 
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