Airbnb is trying to resuscitate its image as the 'nice guys' of the sharing economy


Airbnb has long walked a tight-rope—working to maintain an image as the ‘nice guys‘ of the sharing economy at the same time that it has at times bored its way into cities where it is not welcome, like New York.

But after the brutish campaign against a San Francisco ballot measure that threatened its existence the came to a close last week, that image was tarnished. Like its more aggressive sharing economy kin, Uber, Airbnb came out guns blazing: it hired a top Clinton-era political operative, poured nearly $9 million into an anti-anti Prop F campaign and plastered the city with snarky ads trumpeting the company’s tax contributions. After the initiative failed, Airbnb did a victory lap declaring the battle against regulation was far from over, outlining a plan to harness user lobbying power in other cities.

Today Airbnb walked back its war cries, introducing the Airbnb Community Compact, a treatise on its plans to cooperate with local authorities and protect the communities it operates in.

“We are proud of almost all of the activity that happens on our platform every day,” CEO Brian Chesky said in a blog post. “But it’s become clear that we need to clarify what we will and will not tolerate in our community.”

Airbnb, the company pledged, would share anonymized data on hosts and guests with cities, take steps to prevent illegal hotels from existing on the platform, and pay its “fair share” of hotel and tourist taxes in cities that require it to.

“We are 100 percent committed to being constructive partners with regulatory agencies and policymakers. Our community wants to pay their fair share,” the company said.  “We want home sharing to help people stay in their homes. We also want communities to understand more about who we are and how we approach important public policy issues, including issues like illegal hotels. We strongly oppose large-scale speculators who turn dozens of apartments into illegal hotel rooms. Illegal hotels are not in the interests of our guests, our hosts, our company, or the cities where Airbnb hosts share their space.”

In the release, Airbnb also spewed a familiar line, touting its positive economic impact on the middle class, and positing that it has had an economic impact of more than $6 billion in its top five cities, which include New York and San Francisco, where regulation has been particularly contentious.

Airbnb has long said it welcomes regulation. Last week Christopher Nulty, a spokesperson for Airbnb, told me that the company would like to see more regulation efforts like that in Philadelphia, where its city council recently unanimously passed a string of new regulations that legalize short-term rentals, but tax them, cap them at 180-days-per-year and require a license for rentals lasting more than 30 days. It has similarly struck amiable deals with other cities, including Paris, Chicago and Portland, Oregon.

But the company has also made clear that it will aggressively fight regulations that it views as too strict, employing the familiar Silicon Valley mantra of “launch first, figure out regulations later.”

“Our community has demonstrated that it can self-regulate,” the company said in its release.

This though, is undoubtedly untrue. Reports by Airbnb itself have closely mirrored a San Francisco Chronicle investigation that found that at least 350 homes listed on Airbnb in San Francisco appear to be full-time rentals, a number that is likely conservative given it’s from just one day of data scraping. City estimates were even higher.

Taking 400 units off the rental market certainly isn’t what’s at root of the city-wide housing crisis (as campaigners in favor of Prop F insinuated), but its also not without impact. Each unit of housing removed from the housing stock poses a loss of somewhere between $250,000 to $300,000, according to San Francisco’s chief economist. In San Francisco, the city’s efforts to make sure Airbnb hosts are complying with regulations have placed a burden on city resources, leaving the city planning department to enforce rules that without more cooperation from Airbnb are difficult to enforce.

Airbnb has always been willing to work with regulators—so long as it’s on its own terms.

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