NY Daily News: Airbnb is not the little guy’s ally

By Steven Hill, New York Daily News, October 22, 2015

The giant hospitality service Airbnb has struck like a tornado in city after city. In response, some cities are legalizing Airbnb’s app-based rent-a-room operation, while others are cracking down.

Jersey City is the latest to announce it will try legalization; San Francisco, which legalized Airbnb last year, has been plagued by loopholes, prompting a coalition of homeowners and tenant advocates to mount a November ballot initiative that will be decided by voters.

And in New York City — where it’s illegal to rent your apartment for fewer than 30 days unless the owner is present — there are pressures in both directions.

Airbnb would like city officials to limit enforcement so ordinary renter-hosts are not threatened with huge fines. But many residents worry about the impact of converting multiple apartments in their building into de facto hotel rooms for tourists, and the loss of affordable housing.

I have been an Airbnb host in San Francisco for about nine months. In January, I watched Katie Couric interview Airbnb’s 34-year-old CEO Brian Chesky, and that’s when I realized that something didn’t add up.

Couric asked Chesky if his company inspects its hosts’ homes for safety and fire hazards. Chesky replied, “We want to be a gold standard,” saying that he has 100 employees devoted exclusively to safety and that hosts are verified by their team and technology.

So I took a few photos of my house, inside and out, and uploaded them to Airbnb’s website. Within 15 minutes, my place was “live” as a rental. No questions asked, no verifying my personal details, no contact with a real human being. I could presumably have used photos of my neighbor’s house or from the website of Better Homes and Gardens. Within an hour, I had my first inquiry from a tourist.

Regarding fire safety, Airbnb doesn’t do inspections, but Chesky told Couric he provides free smoke detectors to hosts. I took Chesky up on his offer, requesting a detector via the Airbnb website; instead it offered an “Emergency Safety Card” for “listing emergency numbers, exit routes and other resources” for my guests. Apparently the smoke detector offer had expired.

That revealed to me a credibility gap between the company’s public face and reality.

The biggest gap of all, however, is in how Airbnb repeatedly suggests that its hosts are almost all just regular people who rent out spare rooms to tourists to make some extra money.

In reality, many of its listings are from landlords and professional agents who rent out multiple properties. Data analyst Tom Slee plucked info from the Airbnb site in September and found that of the 30,268 listings in New York City, 44% of guest visits are to hosts with multiple properties.

That analysis matches last year’s report by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which found that 37% of Airbnb’s revenue in New York City over a four-year period — a whopping $168 million — came from hosts who had at least three listings on the site.

Under political pressure, Airbnb last year kicked off some of the worst violators, but recent data indicates little has changed. Its service is eating up affordable housing for local residents.

Steven Hill

About The Author

Steven Hill is a political writer whose latest books are "Expand Social Security Now: How to Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve" (www.ExpandSocialSecurity.net) and "Raw Deal: How the 'Uber Economy' and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers" (www.RawDealBook.com). His previous books include "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" and "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy." Follow him at www.Steven-Hill.com and on Twitter @StevenHill1776