Airbnb is suing the city of San Francisco, battling legislation in New York and fighting widespread allegations that some of its hosts discriminate against renters. Which might explain why it is trying to get ahead of such confrontations here, in a newly opened used bookstore in the gentrifying Washington neighborhood of Parkview.
District resident Liz Furgurson, who uses the home-sharing site to rent out a room in her basement, is leading a group of 14 fellow hosts on a stroll through the neighborhood’s small businesses. The hope, she says, is to familiarize shop owners with Airbnb and to encourage hosts to recommend local businesses to visitors.
“What’s the best way to send folks here?” Furgurson asks shop owner Pablo Sierra on a recent evening.
This event, called a “merchant walk” and organized by Airbnb, feels like a casual neighborhood meet-and-greet. But its implications could be much larger for the San Francisco-based company, founded in 2008 and now reaching 2 million rental listings worldwide. The company hopes gatherings like these can help shore up support as it faces a number of regulatory measures, including one in the District.
Legislation introduced in September by D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) and backed by a hotel workers’ union would limit hosts to one listing at a time and require hosts to live on-site during guests’ stays. Rental units would have to be inspected by the city, and hosts would have to notify neighbors of their rental plans.
Airbnb has stationed six organizers in the District to win over mom-and-pop shops that could rally the council on its behalf. So far, 160 Washington-area small businesses have signed a letter for Airbnb.
“The biggest role our hosts can play is to educate lawmakers about the way Airbnb works,” said Christopher Nulty, a spokesman for Airbnb. “When hosts are out on the streets speaking to merchants and talking to shop owners, that’s a great way to make that happen.”
At EatsPlace, a restaurant incubator and the next stop on Airbnb’s neighborhood walk, chef-owner Katy Chang hands out homemade hot dogs, bottles of water and pamphlets.
“It’s so great that you guys are here,” she tells the group of 15. “We get a lot of people from Airbnb. It’s just a really special way for people to experience something new.”
Chang and her husband, David Hsu, have used Airbnb themselves when traveling, she says. The Parkview resident has not been following the District’s proposed regulations, but she said she likes having a steady stream of visitors in the neighborhood.
Other business owners, however, said they were not quite sure what to make of Airbnb’s door-to-door campaign.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure what the point was,” said Jason Feldman, who co-owns Star & Shamrock Tavern & Deli on H Street NE, a stop on Airbnb’s first merchant walk in April. “I’m honestly not that familiar with Airbnb and have never used it in my personal life.”
Feldman said he has yet to see much business from Airbnb guests, save for a group of women who came in a couple of weeks ago and mentioned they were staying in a nearby rental.
These meet-and-greets began three years ago in San Francisco and have since expanded to other cities. They are just one way Airbnb is hoping to change its image; earlier this month, the company announced it had hired former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to help draft an anti-discrimination policy.
Airbnb is also mired in regulatory battles with a number of municipalities, including the city of San Francisco, which it is suing over a law that would hold the site accountable for listings from unregistered hosts. New York state last month passed a similar measure that makes it illegal to advertise apartments for fewer than 30 days in New York City, and lawmakers have pushed the federal government to take a closer look at Airbnb and other home-sharing sites on accusations of creating housing shortages and driving up rental costs. Recently, the company tapped four former mayors to help lobby city governments.
The District, which last year hosted an estimated 209,000 Airbnb guests, requires local hosts to have business licenses. The company collects and remits taxes on rentals in the city, but hotel workers and housing advocates say the rules do not go far enough.
Donna Colaco, who lives on Georgia Avenue NW and has been renting out rooms on Airbnb for nearly six years, says she agrees with the need for oversight.
“I understand why, as a landlord, you have to have regulations and have proper inspections,” she said, standing on the back patio of D.C. Reynolds, a Parkview bar and the final stop of the night. “But you also don’t want to make it too difficult for people who are trying to find a roommate or make some extra income.”