Boston continues its war on Airbnb

Much like Uber, Airbnb has faced daunting attacks from politicians in nearly every city where its hosts have set up shop. But few places have been more vehement in their opposition to the gig economy than Boston. The government of Beantown has been searching for ways to thwart the popular room rental service for years now and the fight is reaching new levels of nastiness this month. As the Boston Globe reports, when Airbnb singled out a particular city council member who has been pushing heavy regulations, her friends and donors struck back with a very public attack.

Airbnb’s salvo last week against City Councilor Michelle Wu for her stance on short-term rentals surprised many. Even in the sharp-elbowed world of Boston politics, public attacks by an out-of-town company on a city councilor are rare.

But it popped the lid off the simmering debate over Airbnb’s future in Boston as the council and Mayor Martin J. Walsh try to hammer out rules to govern the booming short-term rental industry. At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars, with powerful interests on both sides.

For two months in public, and in two years of quiet meetings before that, a vast array of interests has been wrestling over an industry that’s changing the way people visit Boston and — some say — turning too much of the city’s scarce housing stock into hotels for out-of-towners.

The “salvo” from Airbnb came in the form of a letter to users of the service informing them that Ms. Wu was pushing for an even tighter annual cap on total rental nights for hosts. The Mayor has been looking at a plan which would restrict hosts to only 90 days of rentals per year. Airbnb claimed that Wu wanted it cut down to 30 days. That’s probably what she’s angling for, but she never specifically said thirty so this was cited as “fake news” by Airbnb and the shouting match intensified.

What the government fails to explain is why it’s the city’s business how many nights you rent out your spare bedroom every year. Nobody is telling the hotels they can only rent out each of their rooms for three months out of the year. Supporters of the Mayor are also complaining about how people renting out rooms or apartments on Airbnb are “turning too much of the city’s scarce housing stock into hotels.” Of course, the reality is that if there is insufficient housing and a demand for it exists, real estate developers will build more if you allow them to. And the demand for Airbnb rentals exist because hotels in Boston are outrageously expensive. These are normal market forces colliding in the same way they always have.

Most of these complaints are farcical, generally representing nothing more than anger among powerful political donors (unions and lobbyists for the hotel industry) over increased competition. That’s led them to level all sorts of charges against Airbnb. They even brought in a group which fights against child predators and sex trafficking to warn about, “the risk unknown renters pose to neighbors.” Do you know what those “unknown renters” are called when they rent their room for a couple of days from a hotel instead of a gig economy owner? They’re called “tourists” and the hotels aren’t vetting them all to find out if they have a criminal record.

This is all following the playbook we talked about back in January which was exposed by the New York Times in 2016. The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) has been feeding talking points to Democrats around the country (who they donate to quite heavily) and advising them on how to “build a national narrative” to undermine Airbnb. Boston was one of the cities on their list of highest priority targets and being exposed clearly hasn’t slowed down their efforts. The Mayor and the city council members are parroting the talking points the lobbyists are feeding them and ginning up plans to cripple the gig economy to pacify their big donors.

The tools they use to do this are the ones governments at all levels employ. It’s all special taxes and regulations, designed to make it harder to do business. This is bad for those looking to make a living creatively in the new gig economy and it’s even worse for consumers who lose out on the benefits of competition. Unfortunately, as long as Boston keeps electing the same old collection of liberal faces every year the situation is unlikely to change until Airbnb can challenge them all the way to the Supreme Court.