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Airbnb’s new tool could help cities crack down on party houses

As people turn to short-term vacation rentals to escape cities during the pandemic, municipalities often don’t have the data to ensure tourists are following local public health and noise laws.

Airbnb’s new tool could help cities crack down on party houses
[Photo: Oliver Dumoulin/Unsplash]

Around the world, Airbnbs and other vacation rentals had been refuges for urban dwellers fleeing locked-down cities, sometimes in large, raucous groups. Sometimes, they effectively serve as pop-up speakeasies while coronavirus restrictions leave bars and nightclubs shuttered. As a result, Airbnb announced a ban on parties at rentals on its platform last month.

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“Short-term rentals have been bursting at the seams this summer, and our police department has gotten more complaints about short-term rentals here than we can ever recall,” says Preston Bristow, town planner and zoning administrator in Killington, Vermont.

But this new pandemic problem is compounded by an older one: in many communities, regulators and residents have found that simply discovering which properties are being rented as vacation homes can be difficult, making it challenging to enforce local laws. Some municipalities have been forced to rely on third-party data providers, crowdsourced reports from neighbors, or simply local officials squinting at exterior shots on listing platforms to figure out where visitors are staying.

That’s why Airbnb is unveiling a new pilot data portal that will give regulators and tourism officials in a select group of cities access to information about its rental listings in their communities. The City Portal will give authorities in Seattle and San Francisco access to a compliance tool that will show them the addresses of Airbnb listings in those cities, with the ability to ask Airbnb to block listings for reasons such as noise code violations, fire safety issues, or expired registrations.

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A wider range of about 15 cities and tourism marketing organizations, including officials in Buffalo, Calgary, New Orleans, Palm Springs, and Sacramento, will get access through the portal to aggregate information about Airbnb use in their communities. That can include data such as statistics on where Airbnb guests are coming from and the demographics of hosts, but not currently the individual locations of rentals. The news was announced soon after Airbnb filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO, though it hasn’t announced a date for the offering.

Airbnb officials, who have for years emphasized a willingness to work with cities on regulation, say they are likely to expand the program to additional jurisdictions as they evaluate data from the pilot. Still, the portal’s limited scope may not be enough to satisfy critics of the company, who say it helps bring problematic tourism to quiet neighborhoods and contributes to gentrification.

“We want to pay taxes”

Airbnb and its competitors have long faced criticisms that their listings speed gentrification by helping property owners turn housing for local residents into tourist lodging, including in ways that violate local laws. Proponents say short-term rentals can help homeowners keep up with their own costs and provide better value to travelers than traditional hotels.

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Aware of the criticisms that have dogged it and other app-based services such as Uber and Lyft, Airbnb has for years sought to build positive relationships with local officials.

“Read my lips, we want to pay taxes,” Airbnb public policy exec Chris Lehane famously told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2016, referring to occupancy taxes traditionally paid by hotels. The prior year, the company had vowed in what it called the Airbnb Community Compact to help collect occupancy taxes, share aggregate data with cities, and work with cities on regulations to avoid impacting local housing markets.

“Working with cities on regulations has helped strengthen the future of the company,” says Lehane, a former press secretary to then-Vice President Al Gore whose current title is senior vice president for global policy and communications, in an interview. “The City Portal really is effectively productizing what that Compact had been.”

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Working with cities on regulations has helped strengthen the future of the company.”

Chris Lehane

Lehane says the company is seeking to observe from the pilot how city officials use the Portal and expand access to additional jurisdictions, comparing the pilot to Apple’s first version of the iPhone, though there’s not currently any strict timeline for doing so. The Portal, which has been in the works since before the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to be an improvement over existing arrangements the company has for sharing information with some cities, which can involve cumbersome arrangements with encrypting emails and data transfers, says Airbnb senior communications manager Sam Randall. Cities will also get quick links to Airbnb’s sites for handling neighborhood and law enforcement issues, which in the past have sometimes taken some digging to locate, he says.

View full size here [Image: courtesy of Airbnb]
“What we’ve really done here is centralize our tools for cities,” Randall says. “For cities where we have data sharing agreements, in the past that can be kind of a clunky process.”

The Portal drew public praise from some of the cities participating in the pilot.

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“The Airbnb City Portal provides us with important insights as we continue to monitor and regulate the short-term rental market in Vancouver, and the additional data will help us enforce our regulations,” said Vancouver chief license inspector Kathryn Holm in a statement shared by Airbnb. “As the first city in Canada to sign [a memorandum of understanding] with Airbnb, we are grateful for this evolving partnership and to be part of the launch of this portal.”

Other sources of data

Still, only Seattle and San Francisco will immediately have access to the tool that will let them view the exact locations of listings and take down those that violate local rules. That leaves other cities without vital information: Airbnb and its rivals generally don’t make addresses public on listings or share detailed data with cities without laws or agreements requiring them to do so, and making those arrangements isn’t always a smooth process. The company only recently settled a multiyear legal dispute with New York City over a law requiring that it share listing information with the city, with the company and city agreeing the rule won’t apply to listings only rented fewer than five times per quarter or to shared or private rooms that sleep two or fewer.

In the meantime, a patchwork of third-party businesses, independent researchers, and eagle-eyed neighbors fill in the gaps in many jurisdictions. Sedona, Arizona, for instance, recently launched a hotline and website where residents can report problems with vacation rentals. Airbnb and other rental platforms don’t provide data to the city, Sedona communications and public relations manager Lauren Browne said in an email to Fast Company.

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They really only provide detailed information in cities that require it by law.”

Murray Cox

“They really only provide detailed information in cities that require it by law, where there’s a whole regulatory framework for platforms,” says Murray Cox, an activist and developer who operates the independent site Inside Airbnb, which gathers listing data from short-term rental sites.

Durango, Colorado-based rental data provider LodgingRevs also extracts information on short-term rentals from Airbnb, other listing platforms such as VRBO, and even classified advertising sites such as Craigslist, providing it to client jurisdictions around the country including Dallas, Hawaii County, Newport Beach in California, Sedona, and Killington.

“We’ve developed a lot of tricks for the trade, so to speak, to make sure that we get an accurate listing,” says founder and CEO Erin Neer, explaining the company relies on a mix of automated tools and human review to provide cities with the data they need to enforce local regulations, collect taxes, and simply understand the extent of short-term rentals in their neighborhoods. Right now, amid the pandemic, that includes jurisdictions near urban areas that are handling a sudden influx of city dwellers looking for local travel destinations and using LodgingRevs to understand the situation.

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“It’s having a really big impact as they look to manage the growth, capture all that revenue, and ensure safety,” says LodgingRevs community partnership manager Tyler Fischer.

Officials in Killington began working with LodgingRevs this summer, with a town law requiring short-term rental registration on the ballot for the November election. As a resort town, Bristow says the community is happy to have some extra lodging capacity from vacation rentals, but there are concerns about party houses with dozens of guests.

We just think that’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

Preston Bristow

“We just think that’s a disaster waiting to happen in terms of public safety and also just reasonable impacts in the neighborhood,” he says.

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Without more complex tools or data from Airbnb, officials are sometimes forced to identify listings on rental sites based on exterior pictures, but some renters still evade them. “Some short-term rental owners who like to avoid detection don’t even show exterior pictures, so then it becomes really, really hard for us to know who it is,” Bristow says, leading the town to turn to LodgingRevs to fill in the gaps.

Lehane says Airbnb anticipates working with additional jurisdictions as they put in place legal data sharing frameworks and notes that the company takes such legal measures to protect the privacy of its hosts. However, as Cox points out, the possibility of litigation, like what happened with New York City, might make some jurisdictions hesitant to regulate Airbnb and its competitors.

“If you’re a smaller city, you don’t want to get sued by a multibillion-dollar corporation,” he says.

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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