AirBNB’s PR Machine Marches On

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AirBNB’s PR machine marches on

After an unsuccessful attempt to legalize their business model in New York state by essentially rewriting our housing laws and invalidating our fire codes Airbnb’s PR machine seems to be in full motion. New Yorkers are inundated with ads on the subway, TV and internet about how great AirBNB is for our city – promoting itself as the forbearer of the “Shared Economy’s” populism trying to help working class tenants to keep their homes or to open new doors for tourists to feel a local experience at an economic price! Now after the close of this years’ legislative session in Albany a recent press release from AirBNB’s co-founder Brian Chesky suggests the company now seeks to re-brand itself.

“Today, we’re unveiling a new Airbnb.” reads the blurb accompanied by a set of playful, drawings. “This isn’t just a new look for us as a company. It’s a new identity each of you can make your own. But most of all, it’s an expression of what it truly means to belong anywhere.”

“We now have a symbol that reflects who we are and what we can become. It represents people, places, love, and what’s distinctly Airbnb. It’s so simple and universal that anyone can create it, anywhere in the world.”

“I hope you’ll keep exploring with us on this next phase of our journey—helping us create a world where you can feel at home anywhere. That’s what it truly means to belong.”

One must ask why a change of identity should be necessary if the business was as beneficial as they claim. How did its operators see themselves in the first place?

Airbnb is actually paying for tv spots and print ads some news outlets have decided to sing the company’s praises as well providing free exposure. Such as the case in a recent piece by New York Times staff writer Ginia Bellafante, entitled, “Airbnb’s Promise: Every Man and Woman A Hotelier”. .http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/nyregion/airbnbs-promise-every-man-and-woman-a-hotelier.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=HpSum&module=third-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1. The July 3rd 2014 article chronicles several cases where symbiotic relationships between Airbnb clients and tourists eventually lead to friendships, all the while allowing the home owner to make ends meet. Like any well crafted advertisement posing as news, one would think that the company was the second coming, while omitting some few facts concerning said company. However when one starts to scratch the surface a significantly different picture appears.

Ms. Bellafante’s did quickly mention one case where a Airbnb service provider was burned by a transient who misrepresented his intent why he needed the space. The case involved 31 year old comedian Ari Teman who used Airbnb to rent out his Chelsea apartment. When he returned home, he found himself in the middle of what was described as a massive orgy. It was later revealed that the event was being advertised throughout the city as a “a XXX Freak Show” as noted by the New York Post http://nypost.com/2014/03/17/airbnb-renter-claims-he-returned-home-to-an-orgy/. When Mr. Teman looked to file a complaint about the operators of the sex party, he received the cold shoulder from the company’s service department before actually being harassed online by one of Airbnb’s staff.

What is more troubling however is that the company is now spending tens of thousands of dollars up on the campaigns of Albany lawmakers in an attempt to overturn or at least seriously gut New York State’s Multiple Dwelling law which defines the legal uses for residential and commercial buildings, and acts as a protection for rent regulated tenants.

The law, first enacted in 1929, has set the bench mark for how tenants can maintain their residency and quality of life, was later updated in 2010 due to some ambiguity in its language. Originally, the wording in the law stated that apartments in residential buildings had to be used primarily for long term tenants, those who reside in their units for 30 days or longer. That single word, “primarily” was used by many landlords and building owners in arguing their case that they had the right to run commercial operations, i.e. illegal hotels, out of their properties. Lawmakers understood, or at least treated these operations as violating a buildings’ Certificate of Occupancy. Despite this, some of the city agencies became notorious for looking the other way as these illegal operations took over the city in the early 2000’s. A coalition of tenants rights’ groups and lawmakers came together in Albany to strengthen the Multiple Dwelling law in 2010. The Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement (OSE), the agency charged with addressing complaints of illegal hotels since 2007 is forced to deal with the major obstacle of being severely underfunded.

The hope of those involved in pushing for the passing of the 2010 law was that it would curb the gushing loss of affordable rent regulated housing through the five boroughs. As many as 300,000 units have been lost over the past several years by landlords looking to cash in on the real estate boom. Much of the deregulation processes of these apartments has come under serious question by housing rights groups,

The crux of the New York Times’ Bellafante’s argument also seems to be the main talking point by Airbnb - that their service provides middle and lower income individuals a tool to save their homes by either being able to make their rent or be able to pay their mortgages. Claims that would carry more validity if it weren’t for the fact that most of AirBNB’s business comes from“Super Hosts” individuals (or groups) who own or rent 23 or more units all of which are listed on Airbnb’s websites for commercial use.

In a move to paint themselves as members of the New York City Community Airbnb decided to join the long list of sponsors who support New York City’s fall marathon, organized by the Road Runners and a main attraction for thousands of participants from around the world. The presence of the company is being met with mixed responses. AirBNB supporters were quick to point out the financial benefits of the marathon. Chris Weiller who works as a spokesperson for the Road Runners group, acknowledged Airbnb’s growing ???? but was quick to point out that his groups’ event brings in some 65 million dollars to the hotel industry and to other local businesses. It should be noted that most of the rooms booked in legal hotels for the runners are relatively few and are generally used by the event’s staff and professional runners. A spokesperson representing Airbnb was quoted as saying that his company is not looking to replace the hotel industry but to act as an alternative choice for guests and the runners who can’t afford the cost of regular hotel rooms.

Josh Gold the head of the Hotel’s Trade Council was not so supportive in having Airbnb’s sponsorship in part because of the company’s questionable legal standing in New York state, “It's unfortunate that a prestigious organization like the NYRR would accept a sponsorship with a company that is still struggling to abide by laws in New York City and state and around the world. Whatever the amount of money NYRR was offered, I hope it was worth it to align with a company that is still struggling to exist within the law." http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20140703/HOSPITALITY_TOURISM/140709938/airbnb-to-be-a-sponsor-of-the-nyc-marathon.

Waiting in the shadows are the continuing legal problems faced by Airbnb. Earlier this year New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office issued a subpoena demanding the company’s list of clients. The company challenged the subpoena in court and a judge who over saw the case ruled that the Attorney General’s subpoena was too broad in scope and should only apply to areas of the state governed by the Multiple Dwelling law. A new subpoena was promptly issued by Schneiderman’s office. Feeling the heat, AirBNB responded by sending a name suppressed client list to Schneiderman’s office after removing thousands of illegal hotel listings from their website.

What Airbnb’s re-marketing campaign can’t hide is the fact that New York City right now is going through a record breaking housing crisis with rents higher than ever and middle and lower income tenants paying an ever increasing portion of their salaries to keep their homes. It’s also no secret that many of these now so-called market rate apartments which were once rent stabilized were deregulated under questionable means brought about by the tidal wave of gentrification. It should be noted that much of the gentrification has been exacerbated by the problem of illegal hotels. As tourists and wealthier tenants invade once working class neighborhoods, businesses catering to those of means begin to move in, driving out local businesses which had serviced the communities for years. Lawmakers who support Airbnb as a tool to bring more business to struggling communities need to understand how this solution is a poisoned pill. Illegally converting residential housing into commercial hotels has been a favorite tactic by landlords to clear out apartment buildings for many years. The nuisance of trying to share space with crowds of partying tourists is driving people out of the neighborhoods everyone is trying to “save” effectively destroying long term housing for short term gain. Airbnb may want to consider this before planting a flag in NYC.

Until next time…

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