A Progressive Nonprofit Puts Airbnb on Watch

WASHINGTON—For many, Airbnb is the bugaboo of the hospitality industry. On behalf of hoteliers everywhere, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has sought to shine a light on the major concerns growing out of the popularity of home-sharing websites—specifically, “illegal hotels,” the lack of oversight and adherence to regulations and taxes, as well as the potential degradation of residential communities as a result. The association is not alone in this fight.

The progressive nonprofit American Family Voices has taken an aggressive watchdog stance against the deleterious aspects of short-term rental websites for homeowners and local communities.

Through its project AirbnbWatch, the goal is to “bring together a collection of organizations dedicated to a common goal: Protect communities and travelers by exposing commercial operators who use sites like Airbnb to run illegal hotels in residential properties under the radar and by making sure all hotel businesses play by the same rules,” according to the organization’s website.

Lauren Windsor, executive director, American Family Voices

Lauren Windsor, executive director, American Family Voices

“We’re focused on the middle-class and working-class economic issues, such as Wall Street reform, affordable housing and climate change. We believe that affordable housing is a major crisis for families across the country,” said Lauren Windsor, executive director of American Family Voices, a member of AirbnbWatch. “The public perception is the Airbnb you see in the ads on TV and Facebook…the public face is that the hosts are sharing their home, but the truth is they’re operating their business model in a large portion derived from commercial hosts. We’re talking professional operators running businesses out of properties that could be used for long-term tenants.”

The wide prevalence of illegal hotels across the country prompted the organization to launch an investigative series to highlight some of the issues stemming from these rentals, noted Windsor.

“We’re not opposed to true home sharing for folks where this is their home and this is something to supplement their income, but it needs to be true home sharing, not a facilitation for professional operators to skirt regulations,” she said. “Since starting the coalition, we’ve had a number of tenants who are being impacted reach out to us with their stories. We worked with researchers to identify tenants, but also to identify illegal hotel operators.”

During Windsor’s research on the Los Angeles market, she said she was shocked to see hosts with more than 10 listings, and some with more than 30 listings on Airbnb.

“I also conducted interviews with tenants from Los Angeles and it was really moving to hear the experiences of these impacted tenants. In one of the video interviews on our website, a woman named Jane has become a really active voice in her community on short-term rental issues. The homeowner across the street from her turned the house into a party house. She sees people coming and going on a daily basis,” Windsor said. “When you buy a house in a neighborhood and you intend spend your life there, it’s a huge investment. These homeowners didn’t bargain they’d buy a house next to what would turn into essentially an illegal hotel.”

In addition to raising awareness, the nonprofit hopes to shut down the illegal rentals, or at the very least, get them to adhere to existing local laws.

“If you’re going to operate a property, you should abide by the existing zoning laws, and we want to make people aware this is going on in their communities, how to identify them and report them, so we can create pressure for government to act in the best interest of the community,” she said.

With AHLA as a strong voice in the fight against the abuses of short-term rentals, the leadership at American Family Voices received the association’s support. AHLA believes that there should be a level and legal playing field within the lodging sector, and that regulations and taxes with respect to short-term rentals should be strictly enforced. It supports the rights of property owners to occasionally rent out a room or their home, but believe that commercial operators within the short-term rental industry should not be allowed to operate outside of the law.

“AHLA is part of a group of common interest and affordable housing advocates and neighborhood groups and representatives for organized labor, and we are all part of these groups who have concerns about illegal hotels that are encouraged by Airbnb,” said M. Troy Flanagan, VP of state and local government affairs, AHLA. “We lend support in various ways from updating websites to collaborating on our shared concerns and responses to different jurisdictions when they propose addressing the rise of illegal hotels. We come together and make sure the voices of those who have concerns is part of that discussion.”

With a united front, there have been some successes along the way. “It’s a hot button issue across the country and AirbnbWatch has been very engaged; specifically, they have been a key voice in legislative debate over legislation that was opposed by various groups and didn’t pass… AirbnbWatch has also been vocal alongside the hotel industry and organized labor to advocate for out-of-control rentals,” he said.

The group’s investigative video series will be ongoing or as long as the problems remain, noted Windsor. “It’s open ended right now,” she said. “We have the first exposé in Washington, DC, and we have one in the works for Los Angeles. There will be additional videos as long as it takes to get ordinances in these jurisdictions that are not enforcing laws on the books or helping to tackle the problem. In DC, we had a hearing a while back… We’re waiting for an ordinance to be passed and the local government is punting it to next year 2018. The time frames are ever changing.”