airbnb “Talks the Talk” but Doesn’t “Walk the Walk”

Editor’s Comment

The letter below from airbnb to New York Legislators sent in January 2015 sounds pretty good.  In it airbnb says:

  • airbnb is eager to work with the City of New York.
  • airbnb wants to stop “illegal hotels”.
  • airbnb offers to collect lodging taxes (as they have in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco).
  • airbnb agrees that hosts in rent controlled apartments should not earn more from airbnb rentals than the rent they pay.

The problem is that except for collecting and remitting lodging tax, airbnb has been unwilling to take any meaningful action to address the issues that they say they support. In fact, airbnb business practices keep cities from implementing reasonable licensing procedures.

For example, Portland, Oregon has worked with airbnb for over two years to implement a new ordinance that provides reasonable licensing procedures for airbnb hosts.

As noted in a January 2015 editorial in the Oregonian newspaper  airbnb has been reluctant to change its business practices to support the new ordinance.

Clearly, the city (of Portland, Oregon) has done its part to welcome and legitimize Airbnb. And while the San Francisco-based company has agreed to collect the city’s lodging tax on behalf of hosts, its cooperation seems to have stalled out. The company could have made a permit number mandatory for listing, which would pressure those without permits to seek them. But the company so far has resisted that tactic.

The company also hotly contests the city’s plan to require it to turn over, on request, contact information for hosts. Instead, Airbnb and its defenders have been reaching high and low for arguments to make their opposition seem lofty and principled instead of self-interested and calculated. We’re protecting privacy! We stand for free speech! We are the only thing standing between Portlanders and a city council harboring National Security Agency-like ambitions!

It’s always amusing when a company that tells users it will track their behavior across Airbnb – even when users have expressly stated their desire to not be tracked – presents itself as a champion of privacy rights. And, as Fish noted in a pointed exchange with an Airbnb lobbyist, this is not a privacy issue. The city is not seeking confidential data. Homeowners who are renting out rooms to members of the public are in fact running a small business and the city has a legitimate interest in obtaining the address of businesses that are violating the law.

Letter from airbnb to New York Legislators

Dear [Name],
As you and your colleagues continue your work, we want to express our eagerness to work together on fair, progressive rules for home sharing. Today, technology is making home sharing safer and more transparent than ever before and millions of New Yorkers have used Airbnb and the sharing economy. We strongly believe home sharing in New York should be subject to smart regulations and hope you will continue to lead this important conversation.
To date, hundreds of thousands of New York have used Airbnb to find unique and authentic travel experiences and more than 25,000 are opening their homes to visitors from around the world. 87 percent of these hosts are sharing only the home in which they live and most share their space only on an occasional basis. Additionally, the majority of hosts use the money they earn to pay their bills and stay in their homes.
This activity provides substantial economic benefits to all New Yorkers. In 2014, the Airbnb community generated an estimated $768 million in economic activity in New York and provided an opportunity for more travelers to visit New York. These guests paid an estimated $33 million in sales tax and spent money in local businesses.
We understand that important policy questions have been raised about home sharing and we want to work with you as we move forward. To that end, we want to suggest some common-sense regulations that we believe can be the basis for our continued discussions about these issues:
1. Stop Illegal Hotels: Illegal hotels are bad for New York City. The Multiple Dwelling Law was designed with a noble aim, to stop people from operating illegal hotels in residential areas. We believe the law should be strengthened, with tougher penalties for unlicensed hotel operators and amendments that protect regular New Yorkers who wish to share their space.
2. Share The Home in Which You Live: New Yorkers should be able to responsibly share the home in which they live. Current law prevents many people from even renting their primary home one weekend a year if they are not present during the rental. The law should be carefully amended to make it possible for regular people to occasionally share only the home in which they live, while not providing loopholes for illegal hotels to operate.
3. Help Our Community Pay Taxes: Airbnb has offered to collect and remit hotel and other tourists taxes on behalf of our hosts and guests. We have done so in communities like San Francisco and Portland and will expand this program to cities like San Jose and Amsterdam in 2015. Unfortunately, current law has prevented us from implementing this program in New York. We estimate that New York will lose out on $65 million this year alone and that figure will only increase in the future. These resources could fund valuable public services and should not go uncollected. We should amend the law to help ensure our community can contribute even more to the City and State.
4. More Resources to Fight True Illegal Hotels: The City and State should allocate some portion of the $65 million to increase enforcement against true, large scale illegal hotels.
5. Help New Yorkers Who Need it Most: Current law prevents anyone in a rent regulated apartment from sharing their home – even when they are present. We strongly support smart regulations that prevent abuse , but prohibition is not the answer. Home sharing can be an important source of income for many New Yorkers who are struggling to get by in an expensive city. We support responsible rules that allow residents to share the home in which they live. These rules should prohibit residents of rent-regulated apartments from earning more through home sharing than they pay in rent each month.
Thank you again for advancing this important conversation. We look forward to participating, discussing new regulations, and answering any questions you may have.
David Hantman
Global Head of Public Policy