Skift Take

Airbnb is finally trying to meet lawmakers and housing advocates in the middle, but it's unclear if it's willing to provide cities enough access to its data to know if the proposed guidelines will be met.

Today, Airbnb made an unprecedented policy announcement: It will ban Airbnb hosts with multiple listings in the cities of San Francisco and New York.

Both cities have been battlegrounds for the San Francisco-based home sharing platform and commercial operators, hosts who often manage multiple listings, have been a particular point of contention for Airbnb, lawmakers, and housing advocates.

The “one host, one home” policy has been something Airbnb has said it has implemented and attempted in New York since June 1 of this year but, as of Nov. 1, the company says its technology platform will now be able to prohibit a single individual within the five boroughs of New York from having multiple listings.

In a press call, Airbnb global head of policy, Chris Lehane, didn’t divulge any specifics as to exactly how the platform would be able to distinguish multiple listings from the same host, but he said, “In layman’s terms, the engineering only allows you to list one home with one address in a place like New York City.”

Airbnb is also proposing a “simple, mandatory registration” system for hosts in the state of New York, similar to the one it has in Chicago. The company is asking New York to authorize Airbnb to register hosts on the state’s behalf and give regulators quarterly access to user data “subject to appropriate legal process.” Airbnb also wants to develop a tax agreement relationship with New York, as it already has established in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, a mandatory registration system already exists, but the city has had difficulty in getting hosts to comply with the registration laws, and Airbnb doesn’t require hosts to be registered. An April report from the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst Office showed that up to 80 percent of short-term rental hosts in the city were not registered.

Lehane said the the problem with San Francisco’s registration system was that the process was “very arduous” and that there were many issues related to “privacy concerns” and “costs.” He said, “The nature of the process was going to be a disincentive.”

In Chicago, however, hosts are given the option to register as soon as they sign up on and Airbnb then passes along that information. However, as Lehane noted, there is also an option to opt out of registration in certain use cases such as a boutique hotel or bed-and-breakfast.

Fighting Regulatory Battles

The announcement of these policies could not be more timely. Yesterday, a bill that would heavily fine hosts on Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms who post listings that violate the state’s laws on short-term rentals arrived on New York Governor Cuomo’s desk. He has until Oct. 29 to make a decision to veto or approve the bill.

Enforcement of the new one host, one home policy being proposed by Airbnb could alleviate lawmakers’ concerns regarding commercial operators. However, it doesn’t address the fact that, according to data supplied by Airbnb, approximately 54 percent of all of its listings in New York City would be considered illegal under the state’s current Multiple Dwelling Law. That law basically prohibits Class A dwellings, or most apartments (buildings with three or more units) in New York City from being rented out for less than 30 days. Residents can look up their addresses online to see if their apartments classify as Class A here.

When asked why Airbnb didn’t engineer its platform to comply with the law as it stands in New York City, Lehane said that law “was clearly designed for illegal hostels and not home sharing.”

Josh Meltzer, regional head of public policy for Airbnb added, “It’s a very complicated and unclear law. To come up with an engineering solution to that law would not make any sense at all …  there is not a way to engineer or a way to discover what a Class A building is.”

Airbnb also said it will impose a “three strikes” policy preventing a host from renting on their platform if he or she “repeatedly violates city and/or state regulations.” What’s unclear, however, is if this applies to all city and/or state regulations regarding short-term rentals and how this will be enforced by Airbnb. For example, if a host in San Francisco is unregistered, and there are three complaints lodged against him for being unregistered, will he be removed from the platform? Or if a host in New York City is violating the current law by renting out her apartment for less than 30 days when she is not present, does that count as a strike?

On Oct. 13, 25 different elected officials from nine cities in the U.S., along with 17 community groups, sent a letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate short-term rental platforms like Airbnb and its peers, such as HomeAway and FlipKey, over concerns of growing illegal hotel operations and the depletion of local housing for residents.

Yesterday in San Francisco, the city’s Board of Supervisors began discussing legislation that would limit all short-term rentals in the city to 60 days per year. However, any hosts who registered with the city prior to Oct. 11 would be exempt and can host guests for up to 90 days per year unhosted (host is not present) and year-round when the host is present.

Should the advertising bill in New York pass by Oct. 29, Airbnb has said it will “immediately file suit” against the state under the argument that it violates the Federal Communications Decency Act. The company is currently engaged in a similar court battle against the city of San Francisco.

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Tags: airbnb, new york city, nyc, politics, san francisco

Photo credit: Supporters of Airbnb hold a rally outside City Hall in New York. Today, Airbnb announced new policies in an attempt to alleviate concerns from lawmakers and housing advocates who say the platform enables the operation of illegal hotels. Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press

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