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    Let's Stop Pretending Hotels and Airbnb Exist on Different Planets

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Image by Alan Levine/Creative Commons

    My home doesn't have fire sprinklers or, I think, even a working smoke detector. I have no idea where the key to the front door is, and, if you looked not terribly close, you would find mouse shit in certain places you really don't want to find mouse shit. There is also a chipmunk that loves to claw and chew on the couch blanket—the blanket a guest would likely use if they happened to stay here. Needless to say, said home does not feature an evacuation plan. The closest I have to a security peephole is the full-on-daylight hole in the base of one of my walls.

    Compared to some city apartments I've lived in and an abandoned motel I made a nest in circa 2002, this place is actually pretty nice. Given that the resort up the road from here charges in the neighborhood of $1,200 a night to say in a fucking tent, I could probably get at least $100 a night for our loft. Throw in a horseback ride, and make it $200. Given a rent of, well, about twice that, I would be making a good profit renting this place out on Airbnb. There's actually several Airbnb rentals listed on the site right now in the general area for a good deal more than that. 

    My legal obligation with the site is adhering to local laws and regulations, which I'm fairly certain is just-check-the-box code for don't-ask-don't-tell. Surfing around Airbnb, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that a great many hosts don't spend too much time researching, let alone complying with those local laws. And many of those regulations exist to keep guests safe, particularly the ones pertaining to my situation above (fire and personal safety). Of course, many laws also exist to ensure that various municipalities are getting a tax cut, but you'll notice a couple of things that hotels/motels anywhere just do not fuck around with: locks and fire safety.

    Airbnb is a tough question. I've been chewing on this ever since my first experience with the site renting a one-bedroom apartment in a beautiful building next to a leafy park in Inwood—for $70 or so a night. Inwood certainly isn't Williamsburg, but I've seldom been able to find a hotel room in New York City for twice that in far less desirable places (conventionally desirable, that is; I love Inwood). Point is that I'm poor and love Airbnb for giving me affordable options. I love having these options so much that I'm willing to forgo my serious misgivings about trusting strangers on the internet. 

    It’s a conditional enthusiasm. Forcing some apartment owner to comply with hotel laws to rent their place for $100 seems pretty stupid. At the same time, Airbnb, a company valued in the billions, functions a lot like a hotel chain. Using the site, hosts are effectively branding their accommodations. You won’t find an “Airbnb” sign on any doors—I don’t think—but in a way, it does begin to look like a typical franchise/branding relationship. Where are you staying? “Oh, at some Airbnb in Inwood.” I think this makes a significant difference when arguing that this is just bunch of people renting out their apartments when they’re on vacation for some extra cash. The Airbnb name counts; it provides an implicit assurance.

    There's a particular tone being used in the defense of a New York host recently fined $2,400 for renting his place out in violation of that city’s hotel laws, for running an illegal hotel, according to the city. This is the statement Airbnb gave to CNET, now widely in circulation: “Eighty-seven percent of Airbnb hosts in New York list just a home they live in—they are average New Yorkers trying to make ends meet, not illegal hotels that should be subject to the 2010 law." These aren't businesses, just some regular folks.

    That’s problematic. The dichotomy between hotels and Airbnb hosts is at least somewhat artificial in real-life and totally artificial as stated by the company. In real life, you can say the same thing as in the above Airbnb quote about the guy running the Budget Host off I-5, or the couple running the bed and breakfast in the Poconos. They are individuals living on their properties trying to stay afloat, often barely doing so.

    Not every hotel or motel is a corporately-owned chain, and many that are chain-branded are, again, also just people making ends meet as owner-franchisees. And a great many of them have been having a very difficult few years, given an economy that's been especially hard on travel. Yet these owners, many of which are taking home a whole lot less than it takes to have your own apartment in New York City, are following hotel laws and paying hotel taxes to their respective communities. Not doing so would mean not just losing some extra money on the side, but losing everything. There are actual stakes.

    I paid Airbnb a $17 fee for my two-night stay in Inwood. That comes out to be over 10 percent of the nightly rate. It may be interesting to note that if I were staying in a Motel 6 instead, only 4 percent of my nightly rate would make its way to the actual corporate chain. That’s low, but motel franchise rates don’t go much higher than 11 or 12 percent. Best Western, which styles itself as a membership organization rather than a chain of motel franchises, doesn’t take anything from its motels’ nightly rates, collecting instead yearly dues and offering minimal branding and minimal corporate control. It does, however, require some minimum standards to carry the name.

    The point is that when staying at an Airbnb rental you’re in at least one very real way more closely connected to a multi-billion dollar brand than you are with Motel 6. At the Motel 6 you could even pay the franchise owner directly in cash, whereas Airbnb requires an online payment to the company. Some portion of that Motel 6 money would, eventually, make its way toward safety features or taxes or the other things that legit hotels and motels have to do to stay legal and in business. Meanwhile, Airbnb is just, you know, connecting some individuals on the internet—a glorified Craigslist, right?

    The Airbnb defense rests on that false opposition between networking individuals—a facilitator, barely a middleman—and hotels as embodied by faceless corporate chains. It’s not really an opposition at all but a continuum, a difference of scale. Regulation, too, should be a difference of scale, not a simple “is” or “isn’t.” And that’s everyone’s problem, from cities unwilling to update their regulations for the times to Brooklyn cool kids making weed money off tourists. No one gets to opt out.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.