Airbnb launches charm offensive

TV ads come as Beacon Hill considers regulation

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

WITH A POLICY BATTLE on the Beacon Hill horizon, the short-term rental company Airbnb has launched a TV advocacy campaign framing itself as a boon to local small business, a check against inequality, and a reliable source of income for hosts.

The charm offensive comes as legislative leaders appear to be positioning themselves to regulate the short-term rental market, including Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO, when the Legislature returns to formal sessions in January. Attempts to craft legislation related to the industry never truly got off the ground this session.

In a one-minute TV ad, which Airbnb said is part of a “mid-seven figures” ad buy, four Airbnb hosts from greater Boston talk in glowing terms about renting out part or all of their homes to strangers, and how Airbnb impacts the community.

“Airbnb has totally improved my life,” says Sherry, an Airbnb host from Cambridge, in the ad. “I have this little extra bit of money, cash, now.”

Sherry, who is identified in the ad as a teacher, said the additional income she earns through Airbnb allows her to stay in her home amid rising housing costs and growing economic inequality.

“Boston has become unaffordable,” she says in the ad, which notes that 62 percent of Airbnb hosts in the Boston area said they use the money they earn to help pay their rent or mortgage. “It gives us that little income that’s going to keep the city, for us, affordable for the working class, the working people.”

Another host, Andrea from Jamaica Plain, talks about directing the guests who rent from her to local shops and restaurants as a way to boost the local economy.

“It’s a symbiosis between the hosts and the small businesses here, and we help each other,” she says in the ad.

Airbnb generated $110 million in economic activity last year in the Boston area, according to the San Francisco-based company.

The ad began airing on TV channels in the Boston metro area in late September, Airbnb spokeswoman Crystal Davis said, and will continue to run through the middle of next month. The online booking service is also running radio ads in the Boston market, she said.

Davis said the ad is part of a “general educational campaign” designed “to introduce people to our host community.”

“There are a lot of stories and rumblings about what Airbnb is about,” she said. “This gets to the perspective that these are our hosts and these are the reasons why they’re hosting.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo recently said the short-term rental industry will likely be the focus of more legislative attention next year.

“I suspect that that’s going to be one of the — similar to Uber — I think it’s going to be the Uber issue of next session,” DeLeo said earlier this month, likening it to the challenge lawmakers had in tackling the ride-hailing industry regulation earlier this session.

The Senate this year approved a proposal to apply the state’s lodging tax to short-term rentals through online websites such as Airbnb to help pay for an expansion of the earned income tax credit. The Senate measure was stripped from an economic development bill that lawmakers rushed to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk in late July as formal sessions ended for the year.

Baker initially said he would be supportive of such a tax expansion, saying Airbnb presents “a level-playing-field issue,” and that it “falls into the category of creating the proper competitive environment.”

The next week, the governor reversed course and said he would not support the Senate proposal. Baker said he had spoken before reading the full bill and that the tax expansion was “very broad and it covers a variety of rentals that I would never dream of having Massachusetts tax.”

Though some on Beacon Hill may be split on taxing Airbnb, the company has said it wants to be taxed and regulated. In a July radio ad, Airbnb said it supported the Senate’s proposal.

“If Massachusetts families pay taxes, we should too,” Airbnb said in the 30-second spot.

Davis said Airbnb is “absolutely … still on board with that same message and that same feeling.” Airbnb said Boston could have collected $3 million in hotel, tourist and occupancy taxes from Airbnb rentals in 2015.

As of January, the company said it had worked with more than 20 cities around the world to collect and remit hotel, occupancy, and tourist taxes on behalf of its hosts and guests.

“We want to do more,” Airbnb said in a statement in January. “We are eager to partner with more cities to expand this initiative, which could generate substantial revenue.”

DeLeo this month suggested Beacon Hill will be glad to regulate and possibly tax services like Airbnb, but noted the oddity of an organization specifically asking to be taxed.

“I very seldom get anyone who calls me and said ‘please, please tax me’ and I’m presuming that their desire to be taxed is so to get them into doing business here in Massachusetts and to get some regulations,” DeLeo told reporters earlier this month. “And we’re going to have to get some regulations. Something like this just can’t operate in a vacuum, so I think that we have a lot of work to do in terms of what’s the right mix.”

Meet the Author
Records filed with the secretary of state’s office show Airbnb has retained Boston law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP to lobby policymakers on its behalf. While it’s not clear who is lobbying on Airbnb issues, the firm lists three Beacon Hill lobbyists — Melissa Scorzoni; former Rep. Steven Walsh’s chief of staff Joshua Harrell; and William Kennedy, former chief of staff under Speaker Thomas Finneran.