This is where Airbnb's comparison to hotels breaks down. Inventory at hotels is static, at least on a quarterly basis. But Airbnb inventory has other forces at work, and they are as simple as the delete key.
Airbnb confirmed on Wednesday that it scrubbed 1,500 listings run by commercial landlords just before opening its books to the public. One thing the company didn’t mention: Many of those landlords added units after the purge, often relisting the same ones that had been removed.
Airbnb released data for New York City late last year that showed most of the revenue from local listings came from hosts with only one or two listings on the site. “Our hope is that people will understand 99 percent of people on Airbnb in New York City are using it as an economic lifeline,” a company executive told the New York Times at the time. New York state legislators blasted the company earlier this month after a report argued the home-sharing company had quietly removed commercially operated listings in New York City in the weeks before releasing data to the public.
In a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday, the company said it purged the listings because they “did not reflect Airbnb’s vision for our community.”
Many of those units, however, have already crept back onto the market. As of Nov. 1 a single Airbnb host was listing three studio apartments in Midtown Manhattan, according to data provided to Bloomberg by Murray Cox, creator of the website Inside Airbnb. On Nov. 20 the listings were gone, but by Jan. 1 the host had added three apartments back to the site. While the listing IDs—a string of numbers Airbnb uses to identify distinct units—had changed, in two cases, the host’s descriptions of those apartments were exactly the same. In the third example the landlord had changed the description from a “Red Studio Near Empire BLDG” to “Red Studio on Broadway.” The price, $250, stayed the same. The host didn’t respond to a request for comment sent via Airbnb’s website.
“Today, we suspended 138 hosts who had listings removed from our community in New York City and later attempted to list space in New York City on Airbnb,” said company spokesman Nick Papas in response to Bloomberg’s request for comment. “We are constantly reviewing our community, and if we find unwelcome commercial activity in New York City, those listings will be removed.”
In all, the new data showed that 134 hosts who’d operated multiple units before the purge have added at least one unit since. Forty-four of those hosts added at least two. Of the 15 who added three or more since the purge, 12 appear to have relisted some or all of the apartments that were previously removed from the site. Airbnb listings don’t include street addresses or apartment numbers, so in most cases, Cox’s data don’t definitively show that the new listings are for the exact same apartments that were previously removed. The data doesn’t differentiate between listings purged by Airbnb and those removed by hosts of their own accord.
In the case of at least two landlords, listings removed from the site in November returned later with the same listing ID. That may indicate the listings were removed by the host before the purge, not removed by Airbnb.
The data also show there are 471 multi-unit operators who didn’t add any units between the November purge and Feb. 2.
Here are some other examples:
- On Nov. 1 a listing offered an “Amazing Duplex in Nolita/Soho NYC” for $350 per night. The listing disappeared before Nov. 20. Sometime between Jan 1. and Feb. 2, the same host listed an “Amazing 1BR Townhouse — Nolita NYC” for $336.
- On Nov. 1 a listing showed a “2BR SUNNY APT — 15min from MIDTOWN” for $135; the listing had vanished by Nov. 20. By Dec. 2 the same host was offering a “2BR BRIGHT APT — 15min from MIDTOWN” for the same price.
- On Nov. 1 there was a listing for a “Really Cozy 3 Br Apt Great Location” on West 50th Street in Manhattan for $275. The listing was gone on Nov. 20. By Dec. 2 the same host had added a “Very Cozy 3 Bedroom” on the same street for $289.
If hosts can re-list purged apartments, it “tells you how hosts are learning to get around either scrutiny from Airbnb or scrutiny from the public,” Cox said.
The new data builds on a report earlier this month from Cox and Tom Slee, independent researchers who have been critical of Airbnb. In the report, Cox and Slee argued that the “one-time purge was a PR effort, and does not indicate a change of heart for the company.” At the time, an Airbnb spokesman said the drop-off in listings might be explained by hosts adding apartments to the site before Halloween and the New York City Marathon in November and then removing the listings after those events had passed.
Commercial operators are a contentious point for Airbnb. Housing activists argue that they drive up prices by taking housing stock off the market in cities where low vacancies have sent rents skyrocketing. Hotel groups have argued that these landlords are operating quasi-hotels. For its part, Airbnb has said there are several reasons hosts might list more than one apartment—they could be listing an apartment for a friend, for instance—and that operating more than one unit does not necessarily make a host a commercial landlord.
In his letter to lawmakers yesterday, Josh Meltzer, the company’s head of public policy in New York, acknowledged that short-term rentals have the potential to affect housing prices.
“In New York City, where housing prices and availability are a critical issue, we want to work with our community and policymakers to help prevent short-term rentals from impacting the availability and cost of permanent housing for city residents,” Meltzer wrote. “While home sharing has been around for centuries, our people-to-people home sharing platform is new. And Airbnb is a young company. We have learned that a one-size fits all approach to cities will not work.”
This article was written by Patrick Clark from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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