This new watchdog group is trying to take on Airbnb
Fusion | Kristen Brown
June 24, 2016
On Friday in USA Today, a new group calling itself AirbnbWATCH ran an ad urging the nation’s mayors to put pressure on Airbnb to release “real, unvarnished data” about its urban operations.
“In cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco, the rise of illegal hotels is exacerbating already tight urban housing markets, making it more difficult for working families to find affordable housing,” said the ad which is targeted at mayors currently attending the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Residents in many once-quiet neighborhoods and buildings feel a growing sense of unease as their neighborhoods are being ruined by a revolving door of transient strangers.”
(USA Today is the newspaper most frequently distributed in hotels, so the group hopes the mayors staying in Indianapolis for the conference spot it. The group might also want to check Facebook’s geotargeted ad option.)
AirbnbWATCH is a project launched this month by a little-known, left-leaning political organization called American Family Voices, along with the support of several smaller groups. The project, a spokesperson told me, was inspired by recent revelations that Airbnb purged 1,500 New York City listings from the site right before publicly releasing data to regulators, removing listings that showed people renting out homes full-time, which the group considers an “illegal hotel.”
Airbnb, the group argues, committed itself to transparency and stewardship in cities where it operates. AirbnbWATCH wants local politicians to hold the company to it.
“[C]ommercial operators are abusing short-term rental sites to transform residential properties into illegal hotels,” American Families Voices said in a statement to Fusion. “The fact is Airbnb could easily prevent commercial operators from abusing their site. But so far the company has refused.”
This new group is undoubtedly the result of what has become a growing mistrust of the place Airbnb occupies within cities. In places like Iceland, for example, the company has placed noticeable strains on local housing markets. Last fall, Airbnb handily defeated a proposition in San Francisco that would have placed limits on the number of nights a short-term rental can be let out each year. But recently—in Reykjavik, in Berlin, and in New York City—local governments have begun cracking down. Reyjavik now only lets Airbnb hosts rent out their apartments for 90 days per year. New York City and Berlin only let an Airbnb host rent out a room, not an entire house, and New York recently banned listing short-term listings, adding steep fines and more bite to its existing rules.
AirbnbWATCH is right, Airbnb could take more steps than it does to prevent abuse of its platform. It could, for example, limit the number of nights a given property can be listed in accordance with the laws of a city. Absent that, by sharing anonymized data, the company could at least help local governments come up with rules and regulations that make sense.
Airbnb has said it also wants to crack down on illegal hotels,
But worries that if it shares data cities will “go after regular people who use the site intermittently.” Instead of offering transparency and cooperation, Airbnb has been combative in negotiations and seemingly cooked the books before handing over data.
AirbnbWATCH asks that politicians pressure Airbnb for its data so that it can get a clearer picture of just how many users are renting out properties year round.
“We are urging state and local governments to take action to protect communities and ensure a fair travel marketplace by closing the ‘illegal hotel loophole’ by making sure all lodging businesses are playing by the same rules,” a spokesperson said.
That this will happen seems almost inevitable. If Berlin, Reykjavik and New York’s recent moves are a sign of what’s to come, more cities are going to start making life difficult for Airbnb and its hosts.