In a fight against legislation that would criminalize the advertising of short-term rentals on Airbnb, the company's best advocates are its users. And now, hosts who have been organizing independently for months, will feel the full thrust of the home sharing giant's backing--including usage data, digital ads and possibly legal action--in its appeal to Albany.
Nearly two hundred New Yorkers who use Airbnb to advertise rentals gathered in midtown Manhattan on Saturday to discuss opposition to a bill that passed New York state legislature in June. The company-sponsored event, called Host Day, began with Airbnb promising to support the fight financially and logistically. By throwing its weight behind hosts, Airbnb, which reportedly valued itself at $30 billion in August by filing to raise $850 million in equity, says it's helping put the grassroots movement on a level playing field with the opposition, which the company and its advocates say is the hotel industry.
"In advocacy terms, hosts are a new force," says Josh Meltzer Airbnb's head of New York public policy. "Whereas the opposition is an old, established force, that's very well resourced, with decades of relationships with these lawmakers."
Even so, the Airbnb hosts are not without their own resources. On Friday, some 80 New York tech leaders, including the founders of Casper and Warby Parker signed a letter urging Governor Cuomo's office to veto the bill, according to the New York Post. (The governor is expected to either sign the measure into law or veto it by the end of the year.) And in August a similar request came from supporters outside the Big Apple, including Ashton Kutcher, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Both letters urged the Governor to embrace innovation in the state and not be tempted by the "special interests" of the hotel industry.
Worker unions and leaders in the hotel industry say Airbnb facilitates a "black market" of illegal, unregulated hotels. "Airbnb's unchecked growth is depleting our affordable housing stock and driving up rent, while threatening good-paying middle class Union hotel jobs in New York City and around the country," Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, said in a statement in June.
Airbnb's financial and organizational support is important to people like Lee Thomas, president of the Queens host club--one of 15 groups in the state that meet periodically to discuss best practices for hosting on Airbnb. Facing high medical bills during a fight with cancer, Thomas began renting a room in his primary residence. While not necessarily a new practice, Airbnb provides a platform to facilitate home sharing--and extra income--for hundreds of New Yorkers. New York hosts earn an average of $5,000 annually through the site. If the legislation passes, hosts like Thomas face fines of up to $7,500 for advertising rentals less than 30 days.
"If Airbnb's [business] is strong, I have a mechanism to continue doing what I do," Thomas says. "It allows me to be an entrepreneur, and work for myself." He also claims local businesses benefit from hosting, saying if a renter wants a recommendation of where to eat dinner or buy flowers, he and other Queens host club members send them to local shops. Thomas says hosts also support cities and states collecting taxes on rentals.
"It's a win-win for everybody," he says. "And I don't think we should be held hostage to special interests, which is the hotel industry, for what we do."