The often-wrong international graffiti board that is Wikipedia calls it “a website for people to rent out lodging, including private rooms, entire apartments, castles, boats, manors, tree houses, tipis, igloos, private islands and other properties.” Its website proudly proclaims that it “connects people to unique travel experiences, at any price point, in more than 34,000 cities and 192 countries.” It claims to accommodate over 11,000,000 guests across 600,000 worldwide listings. It is supposed to be “the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions.” It is Airbnb, and it’s possible that before today, you’ve never heard of it. If you haven’t before, you will again, because the online rental service is making traditional hotel networks nervous.
At its most basic, Airbnb is a room-sharing service, a means of subletting space that leverages the power of the Web to find guests looking for very specific accommodations for very specific lengths of time. The problem is that, viewed another way, Airbnb may quite possibly facilitate “illegal” rentals. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed an affidavit this week “in support of his subpoena attempting to identify users who are illegally renting apartments on the site. Schneiderman’s affidavit included research claiming nearly two-thirds of listings on the site were illegal sublets. The attorney general’s office also distributed a list of the 17 largest users on the site with at least one ‘illegal listing.’ All of these users had at least 15 listings on the site,” according to Business Insider.
Stop and think about the power of the Internet when it comes to sales, “wanted” and job listings. Do you ever take to your Sunday classifieds in your local dead-tree newspaper to find a job, buy a car, or advertise something for sale? There are still a few diehard users out there, but for the most part, online listings have supplanted the newspaper in the same fashion that relegated phone books to quaint curiosities. If you want a job, you look online. Craigslist is an odds-on favorite for certain types of sales and jobs listings, but there are many other services.
So it is with Airbnb, which takes full advantage of Internet connectivity to match users with unique lodging desires to people who have space they’d like to “monetize.” Got an apartment you’d like to rent out on the weekends for spare cash? What about a house? Maybe it’s a storage closet. Something tells me you might find a taker, depending on the need and the desire.
This, of course, must be stopped. If there’s anything a good New York City liberal hates more than commerce, it’s unregulated commerce. Airbnb facilitates the fast, short-term rental and sublet of spaces that would otherwise go unoccupied (or which simply would not provide their current residents with any extra cash). That can’t be allowed in New York City, where a combination of political corruption, rampant liberalism and ill-conceived rent controls have made it impossible for the average person to pay for a rental that isn’t microscopic in dimensions.
Airbnb has been asked by New York State to provide three years worth of data on its users. At issue is a 2011 state law that makes it illegal for New York residents to rent out a property for less than 29 days. “The law,” writes Dara Kerr, “is meant to protect renters, so that slumlords don’t force them to leave to make a quick buck on unlicensed hotels and short-term stays.” Those short-term stays are creating “chaos” that imperils neighborhoods, according to some lawmakers.
Amber Sutherland and Bruce Golding quote Harlem Democrat and Assemblyman Keith Wright: “People should have a right to know that their neighbor in apartment 2A is not running an illegal brothel. They should have a right to know that the folks in apartment 5C are not dealing drugs. … And, quite frankly, Airbnb does not help this situation.”
Hysterical as that may sound, these concerns are not entirely without merit. The New York Post reports that prostitutes are indeed using the convenience, connectivity and relative anonymity of Airbnb to use subletted apartments to turn tricks. The Post cites the case of Jessica Penzari, a publicist who rented her apartment for three days only to come home to find baby wipes and condoms in evidence. The cops had called her; it turns out the hooker using Penzari’s apartment was slashed by an irate customer. Other Airbnb horror stories include an orgy in Chelsea, N.Y., (promotion for which was conducted online) and an apartment in Washington, D.C., that was rented by two men. (They turned it into a nude massage parlor for their homosexual clientele.)
The ugliness doesn’t stop there. Airbnb has a competitor, LoveRoom, that allows randy strangers to find both accommodations and partners with whom to have sex in those rentals. Because this focus on hooking up strangers for high-risk sexual escapades hasn’t yet yielded financial success, LoveRoom is planning a reality TV show about the sleazefest (which would, by contemporary television standards, almost have to be a runaway hit).
Despite the potential for abuse, despite the conflict with laws intended to prevent degradation of neighborhoods and misuse of individual homes and apartments, we set a dangerous precedent when we define all commerce through the lens of how a technology (or its application) may be misused. Yes, Airbnb and services like it can and do contend with crime and vice (which has always plagued the hospitality industry in one form another). But the advantages presented outweigh the liabilities. Using a service like Airbnb and combining it with a more flexible dwelling model, people who need short-term (and yes, long-term) places to stay can more easily find them, while people who have space to rent can make money simply through increasing the options on the market. This is the very definition of how a free market is supposed to work – if we can but get past left-wing resentment of this new model for commerce.
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