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Airbnb Says Data Dump Shows Misuse of Service Is Rare

With its release of a trove of data this week, the short-term rental company Airbnb sought to underscore how the majority of its hosts in New York City are playing by the rules. The point is a critical one for the company, valued by investors at about $ 24 billion, as it tries to pacify skeptical lawmakers and regulators.

Of particular concern to officials are the Airbnb hosts who lease multiple apartments, renting them out year-round and distorting their market value in a climate of scarce affordable housing.

The anonymized information released by Airbnb on rentals between November 2014 and November 2015 showed that 55 hosts in Manhattan, the borough with the most listings, have five or more full units listed on the platform, a tiny fraction of the more than 18,700 units listed in the borough.

In an interview, Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, emphasized the point. The data, he said, “does show that 99 percent of the people on the platform are doing it through their primary home or at most with two listings, and even within that 94 percent or 95 percent are doing it in their private homes.”


Airbnb characterized abusers of its services as “extremes.” Credit Matthew Millman for The New York Times

He characterized abusers of the online platform as “extremes” who were shrinking even smaller in number. The company added in a statement: “We strongly oppose illegal hotels and anyone who abuses our platform.”

One Airbnb user who spoke with The Times provided a glimpse into how lucrative the scheme could be. Josh, who agreed to describe his business on the condition that his last name not be used because he was fearful of legal penalties, said he rents out five apartments in Manhattan. Each one earns about $ 100,000 a year, he said, totaling about half a million dollars annually before fees.

Only one of the leases is in his name, he said. The other four are held by people he has recruited to sign the leases in exchange for a percentage of the rental income.

The arrangement is illegal. The New York State Multiple Dwelling Law prohibits apartment rentals of less than 30 days unless a permanent occupant is there. Yet Josh said that he personally knew several others engaged in the scheme in New York City.

Airbnb said it removed more than 2,000 listings last year after an affidavit was filed by the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, saying that two-thirds of the apartments listed in the city were illegal sublets.

A spokesman for Mr. Schneiderman’s office said that after a review of anonymized data Airbnb provided in 2014, it sought the identities of 124 hosts, all of whom had a minimum of 10 listings on the site and were earning an average of $ 500,000 a year. In June, the attorney general’s office referred the cases, including about two dozen hosts who had indicated a willingness to settle, to four city agencies with enforcement powers.

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that after receiving the attorney general’s referral, “city agencies began assembling cases to hold violators accountable.”

“We expect to announce those results soon,” he said.

Mr. Lehane suggested that Airbnb’s release of data this week was a step in seeking a fuller partnership with the city. Such data, he said, helps the authorities “to go out there and really be able to effectively enforce.”

Helen Rosenthal, a city councilwoman who has been critical of Airbnb in the Legislature, said that short of providing abusers’ names and addresses, the latest release of data failed to go far enough.

“I’m just not focused on the teacher,” she said, using an example of a typical Airbnb host seeking extra income. “I’m focused on the users who are renting multiple apartments and renting them out on multiple nights, and in doing so are having an impact on affordable housing in my district and in the city.”

Ms. Rosenthal has called on Airbnb to create an algorithm that uses I.P. addresses of devices to block people from posting multiple ads on the site. Mr. Lehane said he could not comment on whether that was technically viable.

Josh said the apartments he rents are in some of the more expensive neighborhoods in Manhattan, including Murray Hill, the East Village, the West Village and the Flatiron district. He says he tries to get renters to stay for at least four nights.

He often gets inquiries for multiple months at a time.

“That’s actually legal, so that’s ideal for me,” he said.

When asked if he was worried about the release of information this week, Josh said that the future concerned him more than the present.

“You know, I’m worried in the sense that probably down the line something’s going to happen legislatively,” he said. “But it’s all anonymized data, so the only way they can do anything is if they turned over who these people were, which they’re not doing.”


NYT > Technology

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