Airbnb says it is willing to work more closely with cities on crafting commonsense short-term rental regulations and policies, but is this enough? And what's preventing the company from helping to enforce existing laws while it works with cities to craft new ones?
On December 7, Airbnb debuted a new 31-page report that summarizes the company’s four-pronged approach to working with municipalities to develop commonsense regulations of short-term rentals.
Called “The Airbnb Policy Tool Chest,” it outlines four policy options that the company is offering to cities as a means of effectively regulating home sharing.
They involve: tax collection through voluntary collection agreements; tools to address concerns from landlords, property owners, and neighbors; accountability in enforcing certain limits or restrictions on home sharing; and providing data to local authorities without compromising users’ privacy.
“Today really reflects the work of the last year of putting those principles [from Airbnb’s Community Compact, released in November 2015] into practice,” Chris Lehane, Airbnb global head of public policy said during a media conference call. “We really sought to work with cities across the world to address specific policy ideas, practices, and proposals that we could put into place. The Policy Tool Chest is very much a complement to our principles. The Chest is a living, breathing, almost organic document. As we go forward and continue to learn and put those learnings into practice, we’ll put different tools into the Policy Tool Chest.”
The Airbnb Community Compact, released in November 2015, said the company was committed to “paying its fair share of taxes, working with communities to put in place rules that support each community’s specific policy needs, and sharing data by regularly providing information about our community to cities and other jurisdictions in which we operate, in a manner that is consistent with our privacy obligations.”
New Models for Common sense Short-Term Rental Regulations
This new report was released just days after Airbnb managed to strike a deal with the city of New Orleans to regulate home sharing, and just days after the company dropped its lawsuit against New York City over a new law that would heavily fine its hosts who advertise illegal listings, anywhere from $1,000 to $7,500, depending on the number of violations.
“The last few weeks,” Lehane said, “have been a real pivot moment for us, reflecting the DNA of this company.”
Airbnb’s deal with the city of New Orleans includes data sharing of hosts’ names and addresses, automatic registration for hosts that includes permits, a 90-day annual limit for hosts who rent out entire homes, and the agreement to ban all listings in the city’s popular French Quarter neighborhood.
Lehane touted the compromise in New Orleans as a “model process” for how Airbnb wants to work with other cities around the world and, while he admitted “there were some things we don’t like there,” referring to the ban on listings in the French Quarter, he said, “we work with communities and balance their needs to ultimately come to a solution.”
Lehane also noted that the Policy Tool Chest was meant to serve as a framework for Airbnb to work with cities, but that there isn’t one single solution that works for all cities, and each city has different needs.
In Chicago and in Philadelphia, Lehane said, Airbnb has worked with the cities to devise a “two-track system” of registration for hosts, one for amateurs who rent out their home for 90 days or less and another track for people who have more traditional or historic vacation rental or commercial types of rentals for 90 days or more per year.
However, the short-term rental registration system in San Francisco, which was one of the earliest to be created, has not been as successful, with a majority of Airbnb’s hosts in the city remaining unregistered. Airbnb has said the reason for low registration numbers in San Francisco was due to a complicated registration process run by the local government.
What happened in New Orleans, and what has happened in Chicago, another city with which Airbnb has formed a similar partnership, do mark significant changes in how Airbnb has approached policy regulations.
Specifically, Airbnb’s agreement to share data with local policymakers in both of those cities is a significant one — but not one that has been met with resounding acceptance from its hosts. In Chicago, for example, some hosts are suing the city to overturn the new short-term rental law because they say the law violates their privacy with regard to information sharing.
Prior to Chicago and now, New Orleans, Airbnb had not always been as willing to share data on its hosts with local governments. And when the company did release data, it wasn’t always, necessarily, the most accurate depiction of what Airbnb activity was actually like in those cities, either. This was famously uncovered earlier this year in an Airbnb data dump regarding listings in New York City in November 2015. Before releasing its numbers for a typical day in New York, Airbnb admitted to scrubbing listings that would have appeared to be commercial listings.
In some regions, such as China, Airbnb has preemptively updated its terms of service to notify users that it will be sharing data with the government, in compliance with short-term rental laws that are set to be enforced next year.
What Will Happen in Cities Like New York?
New York City, unlike New Orleans and Chicago, remains a contentious battleground for the company.
Following its decision to drop its recent lawsuit against New York City, Airbnb issued a statement, saying: “We very much see this as a material step forward for our hosts, with Airbnb and the City agreeing to “work cooperatively on ways to address New York City’s permanent housing shortage, including through host compliance with Airbnb’s One Host, One Home policy.” We look forward to using this as a basis to finding an approach that protects responsible New Yorkers while cracking down on illegal hotels that remove permanent housing off the market or create unsafe spaces.”
That One Host, One Home policy is included in the new Policy Tool Chest report, and for now it only applies to New York City and San Francisco, a city with which Airbnb is currently suing over more restrictive short-term rental regulations.
While this policy aims to prevent commercial operators with multiple home listings from doing business in New York, the One Host, One Home policy, however, doesn’t address the fact that the majority of Airbnb’s listings in New York City are arguably in violation of the city’s current short-term rental laws.
According to a report released by Airbnb in July 2016, looking at numbers from June 1, 2015 to June 1, 2016, the platform had a total of 41,373 active listings in New York City. Of those listings, up to 53.7 percent (22,253) of those listings could, arguably, be considered in violation of the city’s current Multiple Dwelling Law because they are listings for entire homes/apartments.
As the recent New York City lawsuit has proven, Airbnb, like its peers and other online websites, isn’t legally liable for illegal listings that are posted on their platforms. (Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act protects free speech online by removing liability for online publishers for content that is posted on their sites by third-party users, in most cases.)
So while Airbnb is off the hook, so to speak, for laws that its hosts may break in New York City, is the platform doing all it can to inform those hosts with regard to what’s legal and what is not?
Skift asked Lehane what steps the company is taking to inform its users, especially hosts, with regard to what’s legal and illegal, and just how hefty the new fines are for violating the city’s current Multiple Dwelling Law.
Lehane said the company would be emailing hosts in the city to give them an update on all of the laws, organizing meetings with host home sharing clubs, and “looking for ways on the platform to provide the most updated information.”
A quick glance, today, at Airbnb’s Help Center’s information for the city of New York, however, shows that the information related to New York hasn’t been updated since May 17, 2016. The language used to describe the current laws isn’t exactly direct: there’s no clear-cut explanation of what a Class A apartment is, and the link to the actual Multiple Dwelling Law takes you to 158-page-long document on the law.
Rules and regulations for New York’s new short-term rental advertising law are set to be announced on December 19 by the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement.
What’s Missing From the Report
The publication of this report, in addition to the company’s most recent partnerships with cities like New Orleans and Chicago, are clear signals that Airbnb is much more willing than it has been in years past to work with cities to draft regulations that are both commonsense and benefit both its users and local community interests.
But one thing that seems to be missing from its current public policy stance is this: Although Airbnb is able to design its platform in such a way as to limit the number of home listings an individual host can have, or limit the number of nights a host can share his or her home in cities such as London and Amsterdam, the company is not yet designing its platform to enforce existing short-term rental laws. The company also has yet to take broader steps to inform its users, explicitly, what the local laws are.
Perhaps, future versions of Airbnb’s Policy Tool Chest can address a strategy that includes compliance with laws that are currently in existence, in addition to working with cities to draft improved, more common sense laws to replace them.
Photo credit: Airbnb has released a new report outlining the company's policies for working with cities and governments on short-term rental regulations. Airbnb / Airbnb