Magic Math Won’t Beat Money In-Hand on Airbnb Urban Battles

Wall Street Journal 2015 numbers
Wall Street Journal 2015 numbers

New Orleans    Airbnb, Uber, Twitter, Facebook, whatever, you pick what new phone app-driven techno billionaire wannabes, you worry about, and I’ll pick mine. Deep in your heart, you know Uber is taking advantage of its drivers and ripping everyone off on taxes and Social Security, but perhaps more deeply, the taxicab industry seemed be asking for it. Airbnb is worrisome in a different way, but once again, who can defend the low-wage, tip-based exploitation of workers that is at the heart of the hotel industry, especially in a city like New Orleans where the hospitality industry drives the economy, making the per capita income for the city among the lowest for the largest one-hundred cities in the United States.

All of which brought me to watch and listen to an interview being organized by the Lens,  a local internet news operation, that was billed as an opportunity to get at the heart of the controversy. Sadly, the reporter was interviewing a stone cold anti-advocate, and that’s fine, here we defend advocates of all stripes and sizes without reservation, but he was so confused about whether he was a reporter or an advocate himself with his own axes to grind, that there were nothing but softballs thrown, and no challenge to even the most preposterous comments. That’s life, sometime we win, and sometimes we lose, but we still have to show up, and I did.

I also learned some things inadvertently that were disturbing and, unfortunately, convinced me that Airbnb, come what may, is going to win most of these fights wherever it goes. The unassailable proposition for the anti-Airbnb folks is that no one wants to wake up one day and find that their block is now populated by revolving door mini-motels. On that we can probably all agree, but after that, when the fur starts flying, we’re going downhill trying to hold Airbnb in check, and that’s not just because there’s no clear target or face of the enemy like there is in most corporate fights, but it doesn’t help that the dividing line of the anti’s is also against many of their own neighbors, who aren’t running underground motels, but are renting out spare rooms from time to time.

Where the anti’s are going to fall hard is trying to use magic math to fight the company against its promises of cash on the barrel to money-starved cities, like New Orleans.

The tripping point that catches anti’s is that they start their argument against the company around the lack of data, and then use fabricated data to make their case. That’s not a winning tactic! In thirty minutes, I heard wild claims that Airbnb folk make $250 a night: heck, hotels in New Orleans don’t even do that well! People pretended that folks in the French Quarter have not bemoaned the “loss of neighborhood” for the last 50 years or more, which certainly they have. Some claimed bed-and-breakfasts were upright, licensed taxpayers, which has been an issue in the city – and with the hotel industry — for decades. And, the notion that a huge part of the city’s population hasn’t tried to rent out spare rooms or whole houses for Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and Super Bowls in New Orleans since before smartphones or apps were even invented is just crazy. Couple that with the common knowledge that Katrina doubled rents – and housing prices, and they have stayed that way, especially in unflooded neighborhoods, and no one sober is going to believe that it’s Airbnb that has accelerated gentrification and pushed many affordable units into the stratosphere. Mix all that in the gumbo with exaggerated claims based on a Brooklyn-based website called Inside Airbnb on the number of properties and the percentage that were full houses, and what do you have?

A lot of this magic math falls apart if anyone takes the time to actually see how Airbnb works. The listed or hoped for price, is not the same as the price someone gets if they book a guest. Furthermore, if anyone monitors this, the prices have gone down because Airbnb now gives recommended prices that often differ from the “list” price, just like hotels do, obviously. Furthermore, it seems almost anyone who wants to list a place with more than one bedroom in a funny twist of the Airbnb system, almost has to list the property as a full house, throwing off all the so-called statistics yet again. In our coffeehouses we see a lot of younger people, and we are located in some of the “hot” neighborhoods in the city. There’s no question that anyone who thinks that they might have even a shot at having a guest, lists with Airbnb, but talking to many of them, even if they are part of the “listed” statistics, they have never had a paying guest in over a year.

Meanwhile, when Airbnb offers a city a “deal” that they will collect the taxes on actual rents, slap on some rules, and turn over the money every month, who believes they won’t take it? The city ends up ahead with a minimum of expenditure on staffing and enforcement, which they are failing at anyway, especially when other, richer cities are reporting abysmal enforcement rates. That’s going to be a hard argument to beat with magic math, exaggerations, random stories, and finger pointing. To have a chance with something like Airbnb, we need an “app for that” works better than yelling that the sky is falling.

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