NYC subpoenas Airbnb for details about its hosts

Airbnb app open on phone.
Airbnb app open on phone.

NYC subpoenas Airbnb for details about its hosts

De Blasio takes aim at another tech company following the HQ2 fallout.
February 19, 2019

More than a month after a federal judge blocked a New York City law aimed at regulating Airbnb activity, the city has returned the serve, issuing a subpoena to the home-sharing giant for data on roughly 20,000 of its apartment listings in New York City.

“We want to see their listings, we want to see which apartments are being rented out, we want to know what’s going on,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said during an appearance on NY1’s “Inside City Hall” on Sunday night. “We want to make sure there’s not illegal hotels, we want to make sure that something that is supposed to be an occasional business is not a full-time business, which would mean it should be listed as a business, it should be regulated.”

Regulation of Airbnb – and similar sites such as HomeAway – has been a topic of heated debate both in City Hall and in Albany for at least the past three years, but New York City jumped ahead of a stagnant legislative fight in the Capitol last summer when it passed a law that would require home-sharing sites to make monthly disclosures to the city with information about its listings, including the addresses and identities of its hosts.

Coming on the heels of Amazon’s surprise cancellation of plans to bring half of its second headquarters to New York City, the Airbnb subpoena shows the mayor taking a hard line against a tech company and moving to curb its interference with public life.

“People are worried about the loss of housing, about the loss of affordable housing,” de Blasio said Sunday night, echoing the argument of Airbnb critics that home sharing takes a significant portion of the city’s scarce affordable housing off the market. “They’re worried about security, you’ve got all sorts of strangers in your building, people want to know what the hell is going on. Be transparent, and we can start to make progress.”

A representative for the mayor confirmed that the subpoena is asking for mostly the same information that the city disclosure law would require, including the listing ID number, the physical address associated with the ID and the name of the host or any co-hosts. The subpoena also seeks information about how many times any unit was booked and the days that it was rented.

In a letter addressed to de Blasio on Monday morning, Airbnb’s head of global policy Chris Lehane wrote that the company still wants to meet the city at the negotiating table to work out a regulatory framework that works for both parties.

Lehane’s letter points to San Francisco as an example where this tactic has worked. After a long back-and-forth between hard-line critics and the company itself, San Francisco ultimately settled on a regulatory framework that, among other things, registers all listings with the city. When the law kicked in over a year ago, nearly 5,000 listings were dropped from the site for failing to comply with the new rules.

Airbnb says it wants to find that kind of compromise in New York, too. “We have faced a tremendous amount of adversity so that New York’s 40,000 hosts can make it here – and rather than taking our ball and heading home, we want to find a way to play ball so that everyone can be a winner,” the letter read, an unmistakable reference to the mayor’s comments about Amazon abandoning its HQ2 plans in Long Island City.

Airbnb and lawmakers who support the company have been criticized for backing regulations that don’t go far enough to crack down on bad actors – in many cases, commercial operators who use the service illegally to operate de facto hotels at a profit. But Monday’s letter seemed to seize on the timing of the subpoena, taking the opportunity to draw a contrast between Airbnb’s efforts to proactively work with government and Amazon’s slow response to public criticism. The letter points to Airbnb’s self-imposed One Host, One Home rule, which limits the number of units a person can rent out on the site to one. The company said that since implementing the policy, it has taken down more than 5,000 listings in violation of the policy.

Julie Samuels, executive director of Tech:NYC, said the subpoena was disappointing, given Airbnb’s willingness to come to the negotiating table. “It feels like we are ratcheting up the situation further, as opposed to getting closer to the solution that New Yorkers want to see,” Samuels said. “And that’s unfortunate. Because at the end of the day, home sharing is not going anywhere.”

In the state Legislature, Airbnb is the subject of two competing bills. One is sponsored by Assemblyman Joseph Lentol and backed by Airbnb, and the other is sponsored by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal – and is very similar to the City Council disclosure law under review. On Monday, Rosenthal remained unconvinced of Airbnb’s desire to find a compromise.

"The only thing more laughable than Airbnb’s claim that it cares about user privacy and data, is the claim that it wants to work with government leaders to craft a comprehensive and effective policy to govern illegal hotels,” Rosenthal said in an emailed statement. “Respond to the subpoena and then my colleagues and I will be happy to talk about comprehensive and effective regulation.”

What Airbnb made clear is that unlike Amazon, it has no plans to abandon its roots in New York. “We would welcome the opportunity to work with the City to finally get this legislation across the finish line during this legislative session. In the meantime, we have also offered to work with the City to collaboratively focus enforcement efforts on weeding out large scale commercial operators who seek to circumvent our policies,” their letter to the mayor read. “At the end of the day, we know that home sharing is here to stay in the Empire State….”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.