Questions we should be asking about the startup: isn't it just a course correction for a real-estate system stacked against us? Also: is someone having sex in my bed?
Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, has lots of questions for the residents of the "digital Wild West" who rent out their apartments on Airbnb. Roughly: who are you, where do live and you're making how much from your spare room, five flights up and with an unrestricted view of your neighbor's air vent?
All of which misses the exact point of the ingenius pad-crashing service, and the more pressing issue facing users, not lawyers. As those of us with friends who hand over their keys for the weekend know well, there is only one question for occasional landlords on Airbnb, to be asked in a squealy voice and with a face like you just sucked an extra large lemon: how can you let strangers have sex in your bed?!
Ray is 35 years old, a self-confessed "poor scientist", who now and then clears out of his place to let it out on Airbnb. He characterizes his guests as "respectful and cool", with an estimated 70% of them foreign tourists – the kind of foreign tourists who, on the one occasion they broke furniture, hastily offered to pay for it. How they came to break it, of course, is something Ray will never know. But generally, he says, "Airbnb has been fantastic. There are so many in the city who are only just making their rent. It helps a lot of people."
There are roughly 15,000 Airbnb "hosts" in New York and, if you take your information from the courts or the tabloids, they are, variously, scammers, pimps and updated versions of slumlords (not the Donald Sterling kind), avoiding taxes and managing multiple listings under the aegis of a scheme intended for owners renting out their own homes.
Airbnb itself admits there are "bad actors" in the system, and that it has tried to weed them out, but the startup estimates that 87% of listings are in good faith. Other statistics challenge that figure, suggesting that professional landlords abusing the system are responsible for as many as 30% of all listings.
Opposition has forced both sides into more extreme positions than the situation probably warrants, so that regulators have more or less cast Airbnb as a shell company for illegal activity. For its part, Airbnb – a company valued at $10bn, which, as David Streitfeld pointed out at the New York Times on Tuesday, is "more than the Hyatt Hotels Corporation" – has whipped up a petition that practically characterizes itself as a homeless charity:
Many people are struggling in today's economy and ... depend on Airbnb to pay the mortgage and keep the lights on.
If you go looking for wild profiteering, you will find it, as in the case of this Brooklyn bartender making more from Airbnb than he did in his day job. (Until the attorney general shut him down and drove him back onto Craigslist, that is.)
But in the middle of all this are New Yorkers – and residents of other exorbitantly priced cities, primarily San Francisco, which as of this week has its own Airbnb controversy - just trying to catch a break, and tourists to the city, crippled by the unaffordable hotel costs.
So let's clear up a couple of misconceptions.
Firstly, the clientele. Of the three friends of mine who rent out their small, Manhattan apartments every time they go away, none has ever been stung by thieves or prostitutes. Their guests tend to be nerdy Scandinavian students who bring their own breakfast cereal and leave the place tidier than they found it, or single people visiting the city trying to avoid the single supplement hotel charge.
One friend even has a cat, who has been fed, watered and demonstrably not killed by any of her guests. If Airbnb-ers have sex, she says - and she tries not to think about it - it is probably very boring. And anyway, most tourists who come to New York on a budget walk 3,000 miles a day, she likes to think, and come the onset of evening, don't have the energy for anything racier than Scrabble.
Secondly, the hosts. From a consumer protection point of view, service providers on sites such as Airbnb, or eBay, stand or fall on their peer review ratings. To that extent, they're largely self-regulating. And who needs regulators when you have spies in the neighborhood? In New York, co-op boads assiduously scour Airbnb and even hire private investigators to bust tenants letting out their flats and threaten them with eviction. In San Francisco, we learned this week, planning authorities may reward citizens for snitching on their neighbors' illegal sub-lets.
The rationale is that it's all bringing down the neighborhood, which is debatable. A hunch, this, but the sorts of people who come to the city to snort coke off the ass of a stripper (to quote Gwyneth Paltrow) are probably not the granola-eating Airbnb users so much as either rich jerks putting up at the Pierre or the Plaza – or poor jerks staying at the Motor Inn off the highway.
With the average rent in New York hitting $3,000 a month and some areas of San Francisco cresting even higher, after 10% increases last December alone, the system is so stacked against most regular residents that it's hard not to see Airbnb as a tiny correction to one of the most depressing things about these cities: $2,800-a-month studios and real-estate ads that consider it a genuine enough boast to promote that "every room has a window!" In this context, if you can get over your squeamishness, Airbnb makes sense from both sides.
It is, to Ray, a question of suspending disbelief. "Of course" the mind lingers on what fly-by-night tenants might get up to in one’s flat, he tells me. But "there has never been any evidence. You know, footprints". And he tries to filter out weirdos by doing as thorough a background check as Google will allow. (Which as we know, is pretty thorough.)
From the other side, it's probably more hygienic to stay in someone's home than a hotel. Last year, I met a woman who used to run the corporate communications team for one of the biggest hotel chains in the country, and I pass along what she said to me by way of public service.
1. Remove the coverlet – it's never washed;
2. Don't walk barefoot on the carpet – that's never washed either; and
3. Never, ever touch the remote control - because it is covered in bodily fluid.
I'll take a stranger's chintz over that any day.
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