Airbnb goes inhospitable
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.
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.
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.”
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