Even after encouraging news earlier this month that rendered Airbnb rentals a little more legal than they were before (essentially, it’s above board as long as you’re staying in your house/apartment at the same time as your renter), the site has been entangled in a messy legal back-and-forth with the city, and just released a whole cache of data to try to sway public opinion in its favor. It’s pretty convincing, especially as it relates to Brooklyn.
Of the reported $632 million Airbnb rentals brought into New York’s economy over the past year, a significant amount of it was concentrated in Brooklyn, which, in spite of a sharp uptick in new (or forthcoming) hotels, still has relatively few places to house its new influx of tourists. 28 percent of the site’s New York rentals were located in Brooklyn, and users spent $14.5 million in Bed-Stuy (a neighborhood virtually devoid of hotels) alone. Of course, Airbnb also makes the pretty plausible argument that the traffic pumps money into local businesses, as well.
Then there’s the gut-level factor that most people renting out rooms on Airbnb seem like normal people trying to drum up a little extra cash, and in a local economy where the going concern for most citizens is “how the hell am I supposed to afford the place I live in,” it feels especially out of touch and grinch-y to penalize anyone who tries to leverage their precious chunk of city real estate to their own advantage. If we’re paying this much for rent (and subsisting in a job market where freelancing and gigging are increasingly the norm), may as well make the most of it. “This is the new workforce,” the director of the Freelancer’s Union told the Wall Street Journal. “People do some work by gigs, writing, being acupuncturists and also letting out their homes. All of these components are making up a career now.”
Which is not to say that Airbnb rentals represent any kind of utopian ideal of a sharing economy. There are safety issues and the irritation of one’s neighbors to consider, its effects on the hotel industry (which argues that Airbnb has an unfair market advantage and doesn’t create any jobs), and shady renters who use the site to create what are essentially miniature hotel empires without any of the incumbent legal restrictions. It’s a system that still in its infancy, and even the company’s head of global policy has mentioned the need to “make this safe and transparent by taxing it and moving forward with something that’s working really well.” Still, if Brooklyn’s going to maintain its status as a place where creative types actually live and a rapidly growing draw for tourists, this seems like a service we should figure out how to work with, instead of quashing altogether.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.