One Woman Against AirBnb is a Hollow Victory in New Orleans

New Orleans   I wanted to share what I hoped was a simple story of one woman’s persistence prevailing over a giant, rogue company and the ineffectual enforcement by a city of its regulations governing the company.

That story had as its activist, community hero a woman named Ada Phleger, a young attorney in the Federal Public Defender’s office in New Orleans.  Phleger had lived in the St. Claude neighborhood, where Fair Grinds Coffeehouse second location sits on the border.  She had lived in the area for eight years and moved into her current house recently.  When she moved there recently there were two whole-home short-term rentals on the block.  Then there were three.  She drew a line to fight when the fourth emerged, so began to try to beat the permit before there were guests.

The company is both on AirBnb and managed by Boston outfit, called Heirloom or Stayloom, owned by Frank and Dan Glaser, for some owners and on its own account.  They claim 100 properties in New Orleans, Boston, and New York according to research by The Lens, the local on-line news service.  Sixty-seven of the properties are in New Orleans.  The Lens, following up on Phleger’s fight, found the addresses on 34 with 19 having either no permits or expired permits.

Phleger’s fight was Biblical.  She kept reporting them to the city for violations and then having to get videos when photos of guests were not enough, the months drug on, and guests piled in with no enforcement action.  Finally, in frustration she used her mother’s AirBnb account and hosted a dinner party there for a family birthday party to prove it was being rented and to photograph the inside, establishing that no owner lived there.  Finally, the city canceled their permit since none of the requirements were being met.  There were stories in the local papers and on television one woman’s victory over corporate and governmental ineptness.  She was interviewed by NPR.

All good, but…

Reading more deeply in the stories and the Lens reporting, there’s no question that Phleger was a freedom fighter here.  That piece of the puzzle remains in place.   Some of the other pieces though don’t fit as well.

The city was not as inept and unresponsive as it seemed.  The initial regulations appear to have been Swiss cheese with as many gaping holes and, even worse, they were written so vaguely that the information AirBnb and other operators were supposed to provide was opaque and didn’t allow real enforcement.

AirBnb had touted the deal with the former administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu as a pacesetter in the industry, attempting to establish that they could work with a city and play by the rules.  They did eliminate 3000 listings, but after that it seems they drove a truck through the holes in the regulations, which also allowed outfits like Stayloom doing mass-rentals to exploit the language as well.  All of which made the city look like chumps, re-enforcing the conservative narrative of ineffectual local government, when a closer look tells the old story about the devil being in the details, regardless of the headlines.

The local councilwoman claims that regulations close some of the loopholes.  Now, the question might be whether or not New Orleans – or any city really – can keep up with a floating crap game, supported by visiting consumers and some homeowners trying to make their own mortgages, and exploited by rapacious companies with money to gain and little to lose.

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Was the Weird Labor Dustup over Airbnb Housekeepers a Trojan Horse?

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)
Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

New Orleans   Over recent weeks there has been a spit fight involving the controversial in-home rental app, Airbnb, and various labor unions, including the frequently controversial Service Employees International Union and its even more controversial former president, Andy Stern, and the now much less widely known hotel workers union, Unite HERE, and a bunch of housing groups. At issue was a potential deal, now scuttled, that would have had Airbnb recommending union cleaners to its hosts and guaranteeing that they would be paid at least $15 per hour and “green” certified. What in the world was this all about, other than perhaps the easier work of making a mountain out of a mole hill?

What’s the beef? SEIU has been the driving force in the “fight for $15” campaign and they have long “owned” the jurisdiction on many types of cleaners. This could not have been a big deal for them. Maybe they would have gained a couple of members or more likely a couple of more hours for work for already existing members, and that only in jurisdictions like New York and California where they have fought and won high union density for such workers. Largely though this would have been little more than a press flurry for a couple of days that then would disappear from consciousness. For Airbnb operators this would have been a fix looking for a problem, since most are either cleaning their own places or already have cleaners, many, if not most of whom are already making more than $15 per hour since they are on-demand workers with more individual bargaining power.

What SEIU seems not to have fully realized is that the fight around Airbnb in tight housing markets like San Francisco, New York, and others where there are active housing groups is intense and polarized, and there is no demilitarized, neutral zone. But, SEIU certainly was well aware that these same areas are also areas where Unite HERE has significant organization among hotel workers, so they have common cause in seeing Airbnb or any service that takes guests out of a union hotel as the anti-Christ. Going back to the jurisdictional wars within labor what was a close labor partnership between the unions went way, way south, when SEIU offered a safe haven for parts of UNITE and its former leader, Bruce Raynor, in an internecine struggle with John Wilhelm. To put another finger in Unite HERE’s eyes, the architect of that shotgun merger was Andy Stern, who reportedly was also representing Airbnb in these preliminary negotiations about this deal.

Neither Airbnb nor SEIU had much to gain other than a couple of props and press releases from this deal, so it is no surprise that current SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, saw this as a distraction, and quickly went to current Unite HERE president’s Dee Taylor’s Las Vegas stronghold to, in all likelihood, get her hand slapped, apologize, and hope the whole mess would die like other things in Vegas. This was all much ado about nothing.

Unfortunately, this let’s-make-a-deal love affair between some unions and Silicon Valley tech operations is worrisome still. Airbnb doesn’t really have a labor problem in any classic sense, but something like Uber, the ride sharing app really does. In a recent court settlement on Uber, in exchange for pretending their drivers were not employees, Uber agreed to some vague language about being willing to meet with – or help create a forum – for associations of their drivers to discuss issues. Actual unions of Uber drivers have been in formation in Seattle and other West Coast cities. Was it a lawyer or a union advisor that thought these meetings and company “unions” were a good idea as anything but a union-avoidance strategy? Certainly, the campaign master and deal maker for Uber is someone with rich Democratic politics experience from the Obama campaigns and relationships with a lot of current – and former – union leaders. I would worry that Airbnb might have been a Trojan horse for an Uber type problem, since too many are painfully fuzzy about the hard core anti-labor, job destroying, disruption philosophy that is the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley.

The next shoes that fall could hurt a lot more than this one.

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