Last week San Francisco created a legal framework for short-term rental companies, marking an important victory for their homegrown sharing startup, Airbnb.


The new legislation will permit Airbnb hosts to rent out rooms in their homes so long as the they live there at least nine months out of the year. It will charge hotel taxes to guests and it will force Airbnb to provide up to $500,000 in insurance liability.


Airbnb has not successfully won over public opinion in New York, however, in large part because their opponents have effectively created the perception of a destabilized market due to short-term rentals.


Affordable housing advocates at a protest on the steps of City Hall in March.
Affordable housing advocates at a protest on the steps of City Hall in March.


Airbnb’s failures have not been for lack of trying. AirbnbNYC poured 25 million dollars into an ad campaign, has hired politically connected lobbyists and public relations specialists and has pitched itself as a good samaritan that helps New Yorkers in need.


“They certainly are outspending everyone by a mile. But in fact, smart cynical New Yorkers are actually getting the risks,” said State Senator Liz Krueger said.


Krueger, one of Airbnb’s most vociferous enemies, is a member of the ShareBetter campaign, a coalition of anit-Airbnb housing advocates, hoteliers and legislators.


The cost of housing is a particularly sensitive issue to New Yorkers and the ShareBetter campaign has used that issue as ammunition with their claim that short-term rentals create housing shortage and drive up rents.


It would be politically toxic for city officials to take the side in opposition to affordable housing, say some legislators. So far 14 of the 51 City Council members have sided with the ShareBetter campaign and the rest have not announced an allegiance on the issue.


“It would be very unpopular to stand against the housing advocates,” said City Councilman Rafael Espinal. Espinal has not chosen a side and said that Airbnb lobbyists contacted him in the past week for a meeting.


“What I see is that in the government a lot of my colleagues are taking a stand against Airbnb, so they’ll have an uphill battle,” said Espinal.


A Quinnipiac poll released in September stated that 56 percent of New Yorkers support Airbnb. But the misleading language in the poll makes it a poor indicator of public opinion, says Jason Clampet, the editor of Skift, a travel tech news site that has covered the home sharing debate.


The city-wide poll asked “Do you think New York City residents should be permitted to rent rooms in their homes for a few days at a time to strangers, similar to a hotel, or should this practice be banned?”


The questioning pertains to a legal application of Airbnb and not the two thirds of Airbnb hosts that State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has said use it illegally.


“The Quinnipac poll fell short in asking a very open ended question. In abstract it’s groovy and people want to seem open. In practice you start getting annoyed when your neighbor gives the door code to a different person every night,” said Clampet.


New York media has joined ShareBetter and other skeptical New Yorkers (many of whom defaced Airbnb’s ads in the subway as their own unofficial anti-Airbnb campaign) in their opposition to Airbnb’s PR efforts. The latest iteration of the media’s counterattack is New York Magazine’s discovery that one of Airbnb’s most celebrated hosts, whose smiling face is plastered all over Airbnb ads in the city, was evicted from the farmhouse she was was renting out illegally.


“The whole ‘belonging’ thing is just so much nonsense that obscures how good Airbnb can be in the right circumstance, but how bad it can be when its accolades confuse an accommodation service with a life’s mission,” said Clampet.


It’s difficult to prove whether Airbnb actually hurts the housing market, according to experts, but the mere perception of instability in the market as well as the threat to quality of life, is enough to prevent New York from following San Francisco’s lead.


“We don’t know if rents would have risen faster,” said Jonathan Miller, CEO of Miller Samuel, a real estate appraisal and consulting firm, who added that disruption in condos and apartment buildings because of a revolving door of short-term rental guests is just as important as concern over costs.


“When people buy a condo, they don’t buy with the idea that their neighbors will be a different occupant every few weeks,” he said.


by: Laura Bult

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