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A room of one's own

"A room of one's own" Continued...

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

Hosts I interviewed in New York have taken guests out for drinks. Sometimes guests will leave thank-you gifts for them. Guests can also be odd or frustrating; one host came home and found her kitchen cabinet and living room completely rearranged, and something broken. (Hosts can file complaints about guests, and get money for damages.) 

“There’s that weird connection—you’re staying in my bed,” said Marion, a host on the Upper West Side. “My long-term goal was to have a home that was welcoming to people, even with Airbnb. … I don’t ever want it to become about the money.” 

Marion keeps her Airbnb money in a separate account that she only uses for rent or home improvements. Using Airbnb, she has enough income that she doesn’t need a roommate and has been able to provide a place to stay for family and visiting missionaries. She said she is careful about how much she rents out her place. She wants to be considerate to her neighbors, and she emphasizes that in her “house rules” for guests. 

RENT AWAY: Airbnb employees at work in San Francisco.
Ole Spata/Picture-Alliance/DP/AP
RENT AWAY: Airbnb employees at work in San Francisco.
RENT AWAY: A woman in Hamburg using Airbnb.
Christian Charisius/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP
RENT AWAY: A woman in Hamburg using Airbnb.
RENT AWAY: Chesky.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
RENT AWAY: Chesky.

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With a recent public relations campaign in the face of its legal issues, Airbnb stresses that hosts offer something hotels never can; a home wherever they go. CEO Brian Chesky, at a recent keynote at the company’s gleaming San Francisco headquarters, mentioned that many New York hosts opened their homes for free on the site after Superstorm Sandy displaced many New Yorkers. 

The talk about hospitality is warming, but Airbnb is a for-profit company; it has a financial interest in shielding the identity of its highest earners, who are likely renting out their places full time. For every transaction, Airbnb receives a small percentage from the guest and the host. The slice of Airbnb hosts essentially running full-time hotels out of their homes is escaping hotel regulations that make a night at a hotel more expensive. 

The attorney general argues that hosts typically don’t pay New York City’s 14.75 percent hotel occupancy tax; but it’s not clear at what point Airbnb hosts meet all the conditions of a hotel and owe a hotel tax. Airbnb’s Chesky has said that the company would support figuring out a tax structure for hosts earning over a certain threshold in New York. On average, according to the company, New York hosts earn $7,530 a year using Airbnb.

Still, the Institute for Justice’s Avelar said even those full-time rentals should be permissible, from a property rights standpoint. Property owners should be able to rent for two days, two months, or two years, he said. 

Many of the New York City hosts don’t own their apartments, and they often share a building with neighbors who may encounter a stream of strangers. The usual neighbor arguments against Airbnb hosting are that guests are loud, leave garbage, or fill streets with cars. But Avelar said neighbors can typically address those complaints through any number of zoning ordinances; the state doesn’t have to go after anyone who rents out their home in the first place. 

“So far there hasn’t been any real justification for blocking these rentals,” Avelar said. The laws are “horribly vague and shot through with exceptions,” he said, and the subpoena sweeps in “a lot of perfectly innocent behavior.”

The attorney general’s office met with Airbnb representatives this fall, before issuing the subpoena, but the two sides talked past each other. The attorney general said Airbnb was unwilling to collaborate on sharing information of users who might be breaking the law. As a third party, the company said it was not the attorney general’s “investigative arm,” and suggested the state investigate violations on its own. Airbnb said it had offered to issue legal guidance to its users for how to comply with state law but the attorney general provided none.

Meanwhile hosts continue to host, even if they’re a little bewildered. Misty stopped hosting when she first heard about the legal issues, but researched more and thought she was within the law. Airbnb has communicated regularly with its New York hosts about what’s going on, informing them about the legal proceedings but essentially telling them to carry on as usual.

“Of course, if I realized I was completely breaking the law, I would stop,” said Misty. 

Marion said it’s unrealistic for New York to expect that hotels will fill the demand for temporary housing in the city. And many of her guests, especially families, told her they could only afford to come to the city because of Airbnb; it allows them to stay for, say, a week. (“No one’s going to pay for a hotel for seven days,” she said.) And guests can cook at home instead of eating out every meal. Marion said she is willing to pay a tax for her guests, but it shouldn’t be “to punish people” for sharing.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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