WITH ONLINE home-sharing service Airbnb, according to the company’s motto, customers “belong anywhere.” Now Airbnb is trying to convince cities that it belongs with them — including, as The Post’s Abha Bhattarai reported, the District.
Airbnb’s D.C. “merchant walk” — a neighborhood meet-and-greet between hosts and small businesses — took place recently amid coast-to-coast legal battles. The New York legislature recently passed a bill imposing harsher penalties on short-term apartment listings that would keep renters from accessing many of Airbnb’s high-convenience, low-cost accommodations. Airbnb has sued San Francisco over a law requiring hosts to register with the city, which the company initially supported. Now, Airbnb says the law as implemented puts too many hurdles in the way of hosts.
Airbnb’s quandary highlights a common challenge for companies in the so-called sharing economy. Disruptors enhance noncompetitive markets by introducing services that don’t operate according to old rules. Though many policies to constrain those companies restrict innovation at a cost to consumers, others genuinely protect consumers.
That tension is playing out in the District, where a bill before the D.C. Council backed by a hotel worker’s union would be one of the strictest in the country. The legislation would limit hosts to one listing at a time — a reasonable measure to prevent them from essentially operating as unregulated hotels.
But the bill also would require that hosts remain on their property while renters are using it, boxing out a substantial portion of Airbnb’s business. Advocates say the legislation would increase housing availability and affordability for long-term tenants. Yet it would mostly protect big hotels, and their prices, from competition. An amendment making an exemption for rentals under 15 days would help.
In other areas, there is no question Airbnb needs to change. Most alarming is the charge that Airbnb’s model opens the door to discrimination. A study found that guests with African American-sounding names were 16 percent less likely to be accepted as renters.
Airbnb announced last month it had hired former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder as part of an anti-discrimination review scheduled to conclude in September. That’s a good sign. Yet in a recent update to its terms and conditions, the company highlighted a provision that requires customers to waive their right to participate in class-action lawsuits against the company, making it near-impossible for users to prove a discriminatory pattern in court.
Difficult as the task may be, Airbnb should spend time figuring out how to solve its problems — not insulating itself from their consequences.