Big Shocker: Airbnb Lied About Its Open Data, Hiding City’s “Illegal Hotels”

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Many New Yorkers afford their astronomically high rents by using Airbnb, supplementing their annual income, on average, by more than $5,000 per year. This is fine as long as users do not list multiple properties at a time, and thereby run “illegal hotels,” per New York law.

And yet, in late 2014, State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman commissioned a report that found 37 percent of all New York City hosts (earning more than $168 million in revenue) were doing just that. Not only did that mean users were getting away with not paying the state tourist and hotel taxes, but–more consequentially for New York City residents–wealthy out of town Airbnb guests who could pay top dollar for these units are thought to contribute to the current low supply of affordable housing.

Late in November, in response to increasing pressure from authorities, Airbnb’s New York headquarters made a big show about releasing their data to the public about how New Yorkers were renting out their properties using the Airbnb platform. The Times went so far to call the amount of data they released a “trove.” But this was already a joke because in order to see any of this trove, you had to–laughs!–make an in-person appointment at Airbnb’s New York City offices. Sure you can look at our data, the company was saying, as long as we can watch you while you do it.

At the time, Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, insisted that “99 percent of people on Airbnb in New York City are using it as an economic lifeline,” and that 95 percent of hosts rented only one space. But yesterday, his lie was revealed.

DNAinfo reported that the company, in a letter to Albany lawmakers, admitted to removing 1,500 New York City listings controlled by commercial operators–or 622 hosts, 375 of which had two listings removed from their platform–when they “released” their data in November. Per the letter:

“Moving forward, our policy will be to build… on the commitment to being a solution to affordability issues in New York City by continuing to remove listings from our platform that appear to be controlled by commercial operators and do not reflect Airbnb’s vision for our community.”

In updated figures this month, the Airbnb claimed 94 percent of users are still operating within legal parameters, and make an average of $5,330 per year. The company also said that, from here on out, it will collect appropriate hotel and tourist taxes, if the state permits it to, and pay them to the state on behalf of its clients listing multiple units.

“As we move forward we remain eager to work with you on clear, fair rules for home sharing in New York that will help New Yorkers use what is typically their greatest expense — their housing — as a way to generate supplemental income,” Aribnb wrote to lawmakers in the letter.

That would be nice, because while $5,330 in supplemental annual income is a lovely reason to use the service on an individual level, the costs for the larger community of city-dwellers can be pretty hard to take.


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