Airbnb goes inhospitable

The home-sharing site lays into Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu for her proposed restrictions

GO ON THE Airbnb website and you feel like you’ve landed in a cool world with interesting people who could become your friends. “Book unique homes and experiences all over the world,” is the message greeting visitors to the company’s homepage.

The message to those who would stand in the path of the multibillion-dollar home-sharing juggernaut is considerably less inviting. “Mess with us at your peril” seem to be the watchwords.

Locally, it’s Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu who suddenly finds herself on the receiving end of that warning.

Her offense? Having the nerve to consider the impact Airbnb is having on Boston’s housing stock and to suggest that the city might want to impose guardrails on what has become a wild west of rentals in which apartments or even entire buildings have been turned into de facto hotels.

Wu has been the leading voice on the council pushing for greater oversight and regulation of home-sharing apps. She filed several amendments to Mayor Marty Walsh’s recently proposed ordinance, but the whole package has since been pulled to make revisions to it.

Airbnb isn’t waiting around, however, to see what happens next.

It blasted out an email yesterday, presumably to thousands of people in Boston, ripping Wu for being “aligned with big hotel interests against the interests of regular Bostonians.” One charge has Wu and her supporters particularly steamed — that she proposed a 30-day cap on Airbnb rentals. Wu proposed no such thing. She accused the company of spreading “fake news” and said it “doesn’t bode well” for the idea that Airbnb will be a credible partner with the city in fashioning reasonable regulations.

Airbnb clarified in an email to the Globe that it meant she proposed a 30-day cap on stays by an individual renter. But the company didn’t let up on its attack on Wu, calling her proposal “anti-tenant” and “anti-middle class,” in an emailed statement last night.

The kerfuffle over whether the company misrepresented her stand is, in many ways, the least significant part of the story. What’s really going on is here is the same mega-battle that has been waged by Uber and by other corporate behemoths at the vanguard of the so-called “gig economy.”

These firms, whose founders have become billionaires practically overnight, are arguing that regulators are standing in the way of freedom for the little guy — for people’s rights to drive their own car for hire or rent out their apartment as they wish. It’s part of the broader growth of “contingency” work that Mark Erlich writes about in the new issue of CommonWealth.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

But what happens if that freedom to turn your apartment or group of apartments into hotel-like accommodations puts a further squeeze on a housing market that is already one of the costliest in the country? Accusing a city councilor who seems earnest about grappling with that issue of being a tool of the hotel industry is a pretty rich charge from company worth more than $30 billion. And judging from the online reaction, it doesn’t exactly look like the best way to win over the local crowd.

The popular local news and aggregation site Universal Hub made clear where it stood, headlining its piece on the showdown, “Airbnb tries to slime Boston city councilor instead of discussing its role in destroying entire neighborhoods.”