Airbnb’s New Pivot: Trying to Look Like an Ally, Not a Rebel
Airbnb is dialing back its attitude and says it will play nicely with cities looking to regulate its business.
Last week, after defeating a San Francisco ballot measure that would have more tightly regulated its short-term rental business, Airbnb vowed to use that momentum to establish a network of what amounted to lobbying clubs, called 100 Clubs, in cities nationwide. Each would be a “guild” of Airbnb users the company could mobilize to defeat regulatory efforts. “The voting bloc that is growing is a formidable constituency,” Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s head of global public policy and a former political operative, said at the time of the announcement.
But it wasn’t long before the company changed course, coming back again to idealistic rhetoric. On Wednesday, the company published the Airbnb Community Compact outlining its “core principles” and its plans to work hand-in-hand with local governments, including an initiative to share anonymized data on hosts and guests on the service.
“The fact that Airbnb is expanding the economic pie for ordinary people at a time of rising economic inequality is why hosts are so engaged and excited about the right to share their home,” the company said in a blog post announcing the compact. “But we know we have more work to do.”
Airbnb says people misunderstood what it said after shooting down the San Francisco measure. “We have always said we want to partner with cities,” Lehane told The New York Times, adding that its plan to mobilize voters was something it came up with to help fight the hotel industry, which hasn’t welcomed home-sharing upstarts. (It wasn’t the first time the company struggled with messaging of late; last month, an ad campaign touting the benefits of its paying millions in hotel taxes to San Francisco didn’t go over well with city residents.)
Though the rhetoric and intentions sound good, critics say the data Airbnb promises to share won’t help regulators truly crack down on illegal operators. In the end, the company’s pledge for transparency may just be, once again, about how it looks on the surface.
Looking Like an Ally
Here’s the thing: Airbnb doesn’t look very good right now. Its missteps started with the San Francisco ad campaign, which some called tone-deaf, then quickly moved on to the 100 Clubs initiative, which seemed designed to flaunt the company’s political muscle. And then came a harrowing story from a guest whose father died in an accident during an Airbnb stay, raising questions about the company’s vetting and safety practices.
Airbnb seems to be doing all it can to rehabilitate its image. It has consistently tried to portray itself as a champion of the middle class, helping to provide an extra bump in income to help hosts who are struggling to make ends meet.
Today in Paris, during the company’s annual conference for hosts, Airbnb revealed a slew of personalized tools and services it says should help make things much easier for these hosts. These included clearly marked “Business Travel Ready” listings that offer amenities for workers who travel as part of their job; a program to assist hosts with key exchanges; Host Mentors, where experienced hosts partner up with neophytes and walk them through their first hosting experiences; and Smart Pricing, which automatically helps hosts set dynamic prices for their listings every day depending on demand.
As it tries to make offering your home on Airbnb ever-easier, it makes sense that Airbnb would double down on portraying itself as an ally of cities.
The problem is, the data the company wants to share isn’t granular enough to help local governments make significantly better changes to regulations that are both sensible and fully enforceable, says Scott Shatford, CEO of Airdna, a startup that helps property owners maximize their Airbnb income stream and scrapes Airbnb’s site for data on listings every day—data that Airbnb doesn’t actively release itself.
According to Airbnb’s Community Compact, it will release Home Sharing Activity reports on an annual basis, and at first glance, this sounds helpful indeed—in the past, Airbnb has kept its statistics on lockdown, citing privacy concerns for its hosts and guests. Now, Airbnb says, it will share data points such as the number of days a typical listing is rented on the platform, the total number of Airbnb guests who visited a city, the average number of guests per listing by city, and more.
“When I look to the bullet points where they describe the data they’ll be providing, it looks like a high level summary view of what the average host is doing,” Shatford tells WIRED. “That helps people craft sensible legislation for the average Airbnb host. What it does not do is help people enforce legislation in the future.”
In aggregate, Shatford explains, most hosts on Airbnb’s platform are renting out their homes and apartments only occasionally. “The typical user is using Airbnb as it was intended,” he says. “In aggregate, it all looks rosy.”
But as Airdna’s data shows, at the top, there is a small group of power users on the host side who abuse the platform. In New York, according to four years’ worth of data subpoenaed by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2014, listings violating housing laws against short-term rentals comprised a whopping 72 percent of the total Airbnb pie in the city.
Schneiderman, who has long sparred with Airbnb, said he didn’t take Airbnb’s statement of its intentions seriously.
“This is a transparent ploy by Airbnb to act like a good corporate citizen when it is anything but,” he said in response to Airbnb’s Compact. “The company has all of the information and tools it needs to clean up its act. Until it does, no one should take this press release seriously.”
Shatford says data that would be more helpful for regulators are things like how many hosts have multiple properties and the actual number of days that places are booked throughout the year, both items Airbnb has not specifically committed to revealing in its Compact. Instead, Airbnb says it will share things like “the number of hosts who avoided eviction or foreclosure by sharing their home on Airbnb” and “the total annual economic activity generated by the Airbnb community.”
Airbnb says it strongly opposes large-scale operators who turn blocks of apartments into illegal hotel rooms. “Illegal hotels are not in the interests of our guests, our hosts, our company, or the cities where Airbnb hosts share their space,” it says in its Community Compact. But there’s no hard commitment in the document to share the specific data that would most readily allow regulators to go after illegitimate operators.
(Airbnb did not respond to WIRED’s questions about whether it would share such data.)
Offering cities better data doesn’t only have to be about helping regulators crack down on illegal listings, Shatford says. It could also help shape regulations with more granularity. For instance, according to Airdna’s data, only two pockets in the city of Los Angeles light up as problematic—by Venice Beach and West Hollywood. If resources were focused on those two areas, there wouldn’t have to be blanket regulations on all of LA, Shatford says.
For Kathleen Schmidt, a longtime publicist, Airbnb’s decision to double down on its utopian rhetoric is problematic. “They’re saying, ‘Looking at how responsible we are,’” she says. “To someone who doesn’t read between the lines, they could think: ‘Wow, they’re really taking a stance. They’re really doing something for the social economy.’ But they’re completely glossing over the fact that there are negatives.”