Sharing Economy

AirBnb Fights Crummy Laws and Crummy Attitudes

Why can't our politics and culture handle expedited exchanges of services and goods for money?


The New York Post reported last week on a plan by the "Progressive Caucus" to help bring to a swift halt any progress in hooking up willing tenants with willing landlords immediately and for short terms:

City lawmakers targeting Airbnb want to triple the size of a special task force that focuses on illegal rentals offered by the online service, The Post has learned.

The $2 million spending plan by the City Council's Progressive Caucus seeks to add at least 25 staffers to the Mayor's Office of Special Enforcement….

Proponents of an expansion say it could practically pay for itself through fines for building-code and fire safety violations.

"This plan will ensure that New York City has a smart enforcement framework to hold Airbnb and other illegal hotel operators accountable," Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) said.

Politically, how can they get away with so openly trying to crush something so good for so many people, would-be landlords and would-be tenants alike? Partially because we Americans just have some real weird mental quasi-taboos surrounding the free exchange of money for goods and services, a peculiar variety of which is displayed, quivering and strange, in this Venturebeat bleat, in which Jennifer Tsao starts off with praising the company's clear ability to deliver lots of satisfaction with little harm:

The alternative lodging startup is now 6 years old. It has served more than 25 million guests in more than 34,000 cities. And its valuation has soared to upward of $13 billion at last tally. (For the service to have only a handful of squatterslawsuits, and criminals during all of this isn't a bad track record.)

But she details a particular Airbnb experience she had as a renter back in 2011 that really disturbed her when it occurred to her, with increasing discomfort, that the person she was paying for use of their space might really need the money!

The kid's room, it's true, was great, and my host had this amazing shabby-chic design sense. She'd decorated her daughter's room with children's art that looked straight out of a Real Simple spread. I wondered if she was a magazine editor, a designer at some fancy firm, or an artist.

But we couldn't help but wonder: Where was the little girl sleeping? Her mom had assured us they were at their "country house upstate." But our New York friends, most of whom hadn't yet heard of this strange new site called Airbnb, weren't convinced: "They're totally down the street, crashing in a friend's living room," one scoffed. I worried about this little girl, sleeping on a cot in a corner of some kindly neighbor's living room while our cash was helping her single mom make ends meet.

When the second leg of our journey didn't come together, we tried to extend our stay by a few days. The tone of my host's voice unnerved me as she told me it absolutely wasn't possible. "I really have to get my daughter home," she said, sounding just this side of desperate.

One point for the couch-surfing-at-a-friend's theory. The Hudson Valley  started to feel impossibly far away.

The sense that I was benefitting from someone's desperation made my stomach hurt.

Thus, she wants to make sure that those desperate people aren't going to get any more money from her, by returning to hotels. I hope none of the employees or stockholders might seem to really need her money, if she was unfortunate enough to have to learn about their circumstances.

The weirdest thing about this article even existing is that Tsao has just enough sense in her head to undercut her entire thesis casually later on: "Fundamentally, I'm happy that Airbnb enabled my host to make a couple thousand bucks to help pay her taxes." You should be, and sorry about the upset tummy.

Hat tip to Virginia Postrel on that Venturebeat confession of what makes the privileged's stomachs hurt.

More about New York's troubled relationship with short-term tech-enabled space rental last month, from Internet finks to the state attorney general.

NEXT: Barbara Boxer and Dean Heller Back Federal Legalization of Medical Marijuana in States That Allow It

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  1. If it’s not regulated, it must die.

    1. Exactly. I mean, you can’t have people just do things without the government being involved on some level can you?

      1. “Involved?” What are you, an anarchist? All things must flow from government, or they are, by definition, wrong.

    2. One could also say: if it’s not gentrification, it has to be stopped. I had wonderful Airbnb guests staying in my extra room on a fairly regular basis until I received an eviction threat from my landlords, pursuant to which I was obliged to sign an agreement not to rent the room anymore. The guests were friendly, quiet, and never created any sort of a disturbance at all. It was great meeting them and associating with them, but as we know, First Amendment rights don’t really exist anymore in America.

      1. Your landlord sounds like a real asshole, but how does the Bill of Rights apply to him/her?

  2. The impulse to actively seek out guilty feelings–often, like in this case, incredibly narcissistic ones–is something totally alien to me that I just have a tremendously hard time understanding. Guilt feels like shit. I don’t want to feel guilty. So I don’t do things that would make me feel that way. Seems simple, right?

    But it’s also more than that. Because some people, like this writer, will find a way to feel guilty, even if they have to stretch massively to do it. Why? What is appealing or pleasant about guilt?

    1. Makes them feel like a more complex person who can sympathize with the downtrodden.

      After trodding all over them with their ballot box choices.

  3. Why can’t our politics and culture handle expedited exchanges of services and goods for money?

    There’s a big difference between a middleman and a man-in-the-middle. The Jews prospered for centuries as middlemen expediting trade, the Afghans prospered for centuries as men-in-the-middle extortionists inhibiting trade for those not willing to pay the fee. Which does our government and the crony capitalists most resemble?

  4. This is a never ending feature of liberalism. A behavior the privileged left sees happening among the lower classes offends their sensibilities, so they legislate to ban it. It doesn’t matter that the people that choose to do it are behaving that way because it’s their best option, and the ban makes their options worse. The privileged left doesn’t care, so long as they don’t have to see it. Turn of the century migrants living in fire traps and working gross meat packing jobs? Ban it. People working unglamorous jobs for low wages? Ban it? Sex work? Ban it. etc etc etc. And what should they do instead? “If the one percent only paid their fair share, we would have high paying jobs, flawless government services for everyone, and everyone would be above average.” Everyone has to suffer because these people won’t live in the real world.

    1. This is a never ending feature of liberalism

      Ban it.

      Isn’t that pretty.. illiberal?

      /pet peeve

      1. np – is your pet peeve the hypocrisy intrinsic to “compassionate incarceration”, or the use/abuse of the word liberal to describe American Statists?

  5. So doing business with someone who really needs the money is uncomfortable?

    What world do these people inhabit?

    1. Im struck by how immoral the response is. When confronted by a family in need, this Caring Person could have easily provided a generous tip or a great review or referrals. Instead she hopes to cut the family off from a source of income. What a cruel & vile response.

  6. Most of use are generally law-abiding but resent knowing how much we obey all the petty regulations, so when we see a scoff-law, our resentment leads us to make sure they don’t get away with what we are afraid to do.

    I am convinced that if the only crimes were true victimful crimes, like murder, assault, and theft, and if regs like building codes, occupational licensing, and zoning were entirely voluntary, most of this resentment would vanish, at least as far as snitching on the scoff-laws. Besides, who would you snitch to?

  7. Shorter article:

    “I want to get a good deal, and thus benefit the person on the other end of the deal, but finding out that people poorer than me have to face tradeoffs makes me FEELZ, or something, and so I’m gonna agonize a bit so you think I’m a good person, because me feeling momentarily bad is gonna make the world better somehow. Or make me feel better. But I’m not a narcissist!!”

    1. More proof that these people have never employed anyone.

  8. “The sense that I was benefitting from someone’s desperation made my stomach hurt.”

    So, basically her ignorance of basic economics, her inability to grasp that this was a mutually beneficial exchange instead of a zero-sum game, is causing her (mild) distress?

  9. I have a problem with the subtitle. Our culture has no problem with it, if it did AirBnB and the like never would’ve become popular enough for our politics to want to wet its abhorrent beak.

  10. I’ve saved about $600 on my upcoming European trip booking through Airbnb. The site is an absolute godsend. No way I could get an apartment in central Rome for $80 a night otherwise. There is no loser except the $200 a night regulated fleabag 2 star hotel down the street.

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