With the grey legal cloud still looming over Airbnb’s New York operations, devotees of the popular apartment-sharing website are pulling together to protect their right to host visitors in their homes.
The “sharing economy” really is a lovely concept. The idea of everyone coming together to share their personal assets, connect with strangers, and minimize resource depletion is like a breath of fresh air for us Westerners. For state authorities, however, this Utopian ideal is fraught with tax, insurance, and safety ramifications that they believe need some serious legal troubleshooting. One particular company that’s finding this out the hard way is Airbnb, the super-successful apartment-sharing website that has soared to eminent success in the past 12 months.
In case you haven’t heard, Airbnb provides an online space where a homeowner or a tenant can advertise their humble abode as a suitable accommodation choice to out-of-towners. It’s a great way for the host to make easy cash and for the guest to score cheap accommodations and have an authentic experience with a city local. The website is so popular that it’s now responsible for helping 150,000 people find accommodation around the world each day.
For many New Yorkers, Airbnb is a godsend. According to Forbes, New York is the sixth most expensive city in the world when it comes to real estate. So it’s no surprise that many residents need a second source of income to survive. For some, this is where Airbnb comes in. Yesterday, the New York Post featured an article by Brooklyn resident Evylen Badia titled “How Airbnb Saved My House.” Badia tells how, as a freelancer, she’s struggled to find a steady source of income but, thanks to Airbnb, she’s been able to keep her apartment and make ends meet. When you log onto Airbnb Stories, you’ll see that Badia is not alone. There are hundreds of others who attribute Airbnb with having saved them from crushing medical bills, mortgages, and tuition fees.
But now the New York arm of the website is coming under increasing scrutiny from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who is going after Airbnb hosts who use the website to conduct illegal business. This basically includes hosts who fail to pay transient occupancy taxes or hosts who sublet apartments which they don’t physically live in. When it comes to the latter, Schneiderman already has strong a case. You don’t need to spend much time on the Airbnb website to see that the majority of the New York listings are for whole apartments as opposed to single rooms.
Schneiderman is now demanding that the website hand over confidential data about its New York members so he can carry out further investigations. Ever since October when he subpoenaed Airbnb, the company and Schneiderman have been at loggerheads over the matter. While Airbnb admits that its users should be paying taxes and condemns those who do the wrong thing, they’re refusing to dish up the data on the grounds that it would violate the privacy of its thousands of users—and because the AG is yet to provide concrete proof of any wrongdoing.
When asked about the Attorney General turning up the heat on his company in recent months, Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk didn’t seem overly phased. He told The Washington Post, “New York is not just one thing — you have the attorney general, you have the mayor, you have the tax office, you have the enforcement office. There are a lot of stakeholders, all kinds of primary objectives and levels of awareness.”
It would seem that Blecharczyk is banking on some support from the other powers to be. And, thanks to a little political sagacity, this support might just eventuate. Earlier this year, the guys at Airbnb had the foresight to throw their support behind Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio in the form of massive campaign donations. They’re no doubt hoping that this momentous favor will be returned in the coming months as the AG probes further into Airbnb’s New York members.
But amid all the legal wrangling between the website and the Attorney General, de Blasio’s official stance on the matter remains unclear. Though he has expressed concerns over the safety and tax revenue ramifications brought about by Airbnb’s model, he is yet to rule out the website as being illegal. Another factor that will likely play into De Blasio’s handling of the matter when he comes into office is the fact that the majority of New Yorkers who use Airbnb reside within his constituency. Cracking down on the website would isolate and infuriate many of his devoted supporters—something he’ll especially want to avoid during his first few months as mayor.
And, as we’ve already seen, New Yorkers are perfectly willing to mobilize over the issue—a powerful example being a video dedicated to the new mayor. The emotive clip features four New Yorkers who sing the praises of Airbnb and open up their home to de Blasio to come and stay with them whenever he wants. They also invite his family and friends to come and stay when they come to town for his inauguration.
Another example of mass support for Airbnb in New York is the petition to “legalize sharing and fix the poorly written slumlord law.” The petition, which was created by Peers, an organization that supports shared-economy businesses, set out to secure 20,000 signatures but has already been signed by over 230,000 people!
With so many stakeholders involved, there will be many eyes on this evolving dispute over the next few months. And with mass petitions and personalized videos to the mayor resulting from just one subpoena, it’s anyone’s guess what lengths Airbnb supporters are willing to go should the authorities outlaw their beloved website.