Airbnb Pledges to Work With Cities

by | November 12, 2015

By Carolyn Said

Airbnb has been defiant and defensive in its dealings with cities like San Francisco that want to restrain vacation rentals in homes. It has organized hosts to lobby for looser laws, unleashed attack campaigns against opponents and indulged in scare tactics and snark in its advertising.

Now it seems to be trying cooperation.

On Tuesday, the hospitality platform said it would play ball with civic leaders worldwide in several ways: by collecting hotel taxes, sharing anonymized information about local short-term rentals, and by asking hosts in cities where housing is scarce to verify that they are renting their permanent residence. It had previously rejected such ideas as too cumbersome or otherwise unworkable. Airbnb's massive growth has triggered concerns in many cities about its impact and calls for strict laws. Now the $25.5 billion company appears to be making overtures to lawmakers by offering self-regulation, observers said.

Seeking partnership

The company's new "Community Compact" "will help provide a series of tangible actions that we can take to ensure home-sharing makes communities around the world even stronger," wrote CEO Brian Chesky, who co-founded Airbnb in his SoMa bachelor pad five years ago to make extra cash by offering crash space on inflatable beds. "We are 100 percent committed to being constructive partners with regulatory agencies and policymakers," the company wrote in another blog post.

Some observers said the moves show a positive evolution of Airbnb's interactions with the 34,000 cities where it has some 2 million listings for short-term lodging.

"With any kind of new technology or financial innovation, the government is always behind in figuring out how to regulate something new," said Carol Galante, a professor of affordable housing and urban policy at UC Berkeley. "Disruptive technologies like Airbnb need to go through a maturing of their relationships with cities."

But Airbnb's fiercest local critics weren't convinced.

'Preemptive strike'?

"This shows that Airbnb is clearly running scared after the too-close-for-comfort outcome of Prop. F," said Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. "This is clearly a preemptive strike, not a sign of sudden enlightenment on the issues."

San Francisco voters last week rejected Proposition F, which would have drastically curtailed vacation rentals in homes. But the margin of 56 percent to 44 percent struck many as surprising, given that Airbnb poured $8.5 million into the campaign, outspending the other side more than tenfold.

Shortt and other Prop. F supporters fear that landlords convert permanent housing into lucrative Airbnb rentals. A Chronicle investigation found that at least 250 San Francisco units appear to be rented year-round to travelers. That's the issue Airbnb is addressing by saying it will ask hosts in cities with housing issues to assert that they are renting their permanent residence.

"We strongly oppose large-scale speculators who turn dozens of apartments into illegal hotel rooms," Airbnb wrote online.

But Prop. F backers said that voluntary compliance by hosts wouldn't work. "Airbnb should limit its listings to only those units that are legal and registered, which was the heart of Prop. F," said Dale Carlson, who spearheaded the initiative campaign. "Once again, they're putting regulatory compliance on the hosts and avoiding any responsibility of their own."

Airbnb said that data transparency would help cities ensure that it was living up to its promises. But it didn't specify how detailed the data would be. It said it would consult with consumer privacy experts and its hosts about privacy issues.

Gabriel Metcalf, CEO of urban think tank SPUR, said he sees this development as "a real basis for moving forward on an agreement that will work for San Francisco. I think there is a lot of room for reasonable people to agree about how to manage short-term rentals while making sure they don't unintentionally cannibalize housing stock."

(c)2015 the San Francisco Chronicle