Airbnb Purged New York Listings to Create a Rosier Portrait, Report Says
New York Times | Jonah Bromwich
February 11, 2016

In December, Airbnb released a trove of data that showed about 95 percent of its hosts in New York City were playing by the rules. But an independent report released Wednesday cast a shadow on that rosy picture, claiming that the company “misled the media and the public” by removing more than 1,000 listings from its site in November before making available the data.

Murray Cox, one of the co-authors of the report, describes the site he founded, Inside Airbnb, as a tool for exploring the company’s impact on residential communities. The report portrays the December release as a cynical attempt to garner good press, and says that listings of multiple homes by hosts on the site have already begun to proliferate again, just months after the purge.

In an email, Nick Papas, an Airbnb spokesman, said that those kinds of abusers were not representative of most of its hosts, and said that as of Feb. 8, 94 percent of hosts in the city had only one active listing on the site.

The company released the original data on the heels of a pledge to “build an open and transparent community.” Its goal was to show the news media, the public and New York policy makers that its local users were, for the most part, hard-working residents looking for an honest way to supplement their incomes.

In response to the Inside Airbnb report, Nick Papas, a spokesman for the company, emphasized that picture of users in the city.

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“The vast majority of our hosts are everyday people who have just one listing and share their space a few nights a month to help make ends meet,” he wrote in an email Wednesday.

He continued, “Airbnb is an open people-to-people platform where listings come on and go off throughout the year.”

Data for the independent report was sourced from two separate sets, one collected by Mr. Cox, and the other by the technology writer Tom Slee, who recently wrote a book titled, “What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy.” The data that informed the report is available for download.

Matt Mittenthal, a spokesman for New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, said, “If this analysis is accurate, it appears that Airbnb is again trying to downplay the number of illegal apartment listings on the site.”

“Airbnb continues to show a blatant disregard for New York laws designed to protect the rights of tenants and prevent the proliferation of illegal hotels,” he added.

State law bans apartment rentals of fewer than 30 days unless a permanent occupant is present, meaning that short-term, full apartment rentals are illegal. A host with multiple listings cannot be present in multiple locations at once.

Airbnb has a history of removing listings in bulk in New York. In 2014, it got rid of more than 2,000 listings in response to an affidavit filed by Mr. Schneiderman that said two-thirds of all apartments listed in the city were illegal.

In June, Mr. Schneiderman’s office provided the names of 124 hosts with a minimum of 10 listings on the site to city agencies. A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office said in December that those agencies had begun to assemble cases against violators and that results would soon be announced.

In an email on Thursday, the same spokesman, Wiley Norvell, said that the city had put “significant new resources into enforcement.”

“We’re very concerned by reports the data shared with the public by Airbnb excluded many questionable listings,” he said. “Accurate sharing of information is nonnegotiable in our work to protect the public.”

David Ordal, the chief executive of Everbooked, a firm that helps users of sites like Airbnb optimize their pricing schemes, said that the site frequently removes listings in batches, citing similar instances in Los Angeles and Portland, Ore.

“Airbnb is walking a fine line — they’re trying to be in compliance with local laws, but they’re also trying to spread their ‘sharing economy’ platform,” Mr. Ordal said. “It’s an easy thing to do in principle, but there are a lot of gray areas, and this is one of them.”

Mr. Slee, the technology writer, said that the removal of so many listings right before the release of the data damaged the trust that the company hoped to build in New York and elsewhere.

“Airbnb is making its business model depend on regulations changing in cities around the world,” he said. “Cities need to be able to trust Airbnb if they’re going to do that.”