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NYC Politicians and Advocacy Groups Say Airbnb Misrepresents Sharing Economy

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, September 12 2014

"Share Better" ad

A coalition of New York election officials and affordable housing groups have launched an advocacy effort targeting Airbnb called "Share Better" that includes an ad campaign, a web platform, and social media outreach.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the group would be spending $3 million on online, TV and radio advertising alone. Metropolitan Public Strategies, the consulting firm running the campaign, told the Wall Street Journal that it estimated that Airbnb had spent $25 million so far. Its marketing strategies are comprehensive and also include digital ads, ads in subways, mailers, and sponsorship of the New York City Marathon. One part of the campaign features anecdotes of Airbnb hosts who have been able to earn money and pay for health costs by renting out their apartment on Airbnb, and tourists who have been able to save money by renting through Airbnb. The Wall Street Journal noted that Share Better is raising money for the campaign from the New York Hotel Association and coalition members. AirBnb has been using the tagline, "New Yorkers agree: Airbnb is good for NYC."

The campaign, which launched with a rally at New York City Hall on Friday, says that illegal hotels are using platforms like Airbnb "to unlawfully convert residential units into more lucrative short-term rentals, exacerbating New York’s housing crisis by depleting an already scarce supply of affordable housing." In its press release, the group says that in addition to advertisements, grassroots organizing and public education, it will also consider possible legislative action.

Among the elected officials supporting the campaign are Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Ben Kallos, who have been technology cheerleaders within New York City government.

Brewer said in a statement that the "boom in tourism to New York City, the rise of websites like AirBnB and Craigslist, and landlords and building owners have combined and made the affordable housing crisis worse. These owners are diverting units which could be permanent homes for New Yorkers into temporary and illegal lodging for tourists.”

"Thousands of AirBnB rooms are available not just for one weekend but for months on end, including in our city’s affordable housing. That is not the ‘sharing economy’: It’s making ten times market rate on our desperately-needed housing stock," Kallos said in the statement. "Housing units for low- and middle-income New Yorkers must go to New Yorkers, not to tourists. I call on AirBnB and similar sites to promote innovation while following the law and respecting New York City’s affordable housing.”

Share Better released a video that directly counters a video ad Airbnb released earlier this year titled "Views," which conveyed a message that Airbnb guests will both feel at home and get to experience colorful locales. Airbnb's video included images of diverse travel locations viewed through home windows, with music and an Airbnb host voiceover.

The Share Better video keeps the same music and voice over, but features images and on-screen quotes from online rating websites highlighting on-screen negative comments from Airbnb renters across the world complaining about dirty windows, mold, mouse droppings, bed bugs, barking dogs and dirty refrigerators.

The Share Better web platform calls on hosts and guests to add to the "horror stories" via the website, which all include share buttons and links back to news articles about the negative experiences.

The leadership of Metropolitan Public Strategies, the firm running the campaign, are all former staffers with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has taken a tough stand on Airbnb and successfully requested that the company anonymize data on 16,000 New York users of the site. In response to more detailed information about 124 of those users, Airbnb recently responded by saying the users in question should negotiate directly with the AG and not involve the company, the New York Daily News reported. The New York Observer reported that Schneiderman's Republican challenger John Cahill in the November election said he supports Airbnb and Uber. Politico recently noted that Republican candidates were using issues around Uber and Lyft to appeal to young voters with an anti-regulatory message. A September Qunnipiac poll found that 56 percent of New Yorkers say it should be permissible "to rent rooms in their homes for a few days at a time to strangers, similar to a hotel."

Airbnb has responded to the new campaign with a blog post, referring to it as "Hotels vs. Regular New Yorkers." In the blog post, Airbnb public policy manager Max Pomeranc writes that "misinformed hotels are willing to spend millions of dollars because they don’t think regular New Yorkers should be able to share the home in which they live." In the blog post, he argues that Airbnb helps make New York City affordable by allowing hosts to earn money and is good for the economy by helping tourists frequent small businesses and paying more than $36 million in sales taxes.

While he writes that Airbnb opposes illegal hotels, he calls the claims that Airbnb hurts affordable housing "misleading and inaccurate," stating that there are not enough Airbnb listings in New York City to affect housing prices and pointing to research showing that short-term rentals are leading to higher rental prices or influencing the rental market. He also adds that Airbnb took action earlier this year to remove 2,000 listings from the site that "were abusing our site with multiple listings and weren’t providing a quality, local experience to guests." Pomeranc concludes that "some in the hotel industry will do everything they can to stop the sharing economy, but we look forward to working with leaders in New York on sensible legislation that cracks down on illegal hotels and ensures regular New Yorkers can share the home in which they live."

In November 2013, Airbnb founders Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharzyk and Joe Gebbia each gave nearly $5,000 to the mayoral campaign of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio has been enthusiastic about the tech sector in New York City, which he sought to demonstrate with a visit to the NY Tech Meetup this past week. But his top priority has also been affordable housing. At the meetup, he praised the entrepreneurs behind the tool Heatseek for creating a way to help organize tenants who have heating complaints.

A report earlier this year on the New York City tech economy on behalf of the NY Tech Meetup, among others, also highlighted affordable housing as a priority for the tech sector, citing a survey of New Yorkers done as part of a mayoral transition project called Talking Transition. "Addressing affordability is a crucial role in attracting and retaining workers needed by growing firms in the tech ecosystem," said the report. "The City must construct affordable and market-rate, low- and middle-income housing in all boroughs so that residents have options they can afford."

In April, de Blasio, who had expressed skepticism about Airbnb during his campaign, stated in response to questions about negative Airbnb news reports that "there are revenue issues, there are security issues, there are issues of law enforcement--all of this needs to be looked at so certainly something we'll be doing on the city level, working with our partners in the state government as well, but it's something I think in general government is grappling with as a new phenomenon."