The Real Deal New York

Airbnb set to launch NYC grassroots campaign modeled on SF victory

Controversial short-term rental startup will unveil NYC “Home Sharing Club” 

February 23, 2016 06:40PM
By Rich Bockmann

Chris Lehane and Josh Meltzer

Chris Lehane and Josh Meltzer

Still facing backlash over claims it manipulated its data to paint a rosier picture for critics, Airbnb this week plans to launch a grassroots organizing effort in New York modeled on its successful policy-changing campaign in San Francisco.

Leading up to a ballot initiative in November, Airbnb last year mobilized its community in San Francisco – and pumped $8.5 million into its political campaign – to successfully fight back Proposition F, a proposal that would have placed restrictions on short-term rentals in the Bay Area city.

Shortly thereafter Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s newly-minted head of global policy, published a manifesto promising to replicate the grassroots campaign by supporting the creation of “100 independent Home Sharing Clubs” in just as many cities throughout this year.

Here in New York, where Albany lawmakers enacted legislation in 2010 banning the kinds of short-term rentals that today make up the bulk of Airbnb’s business, the company will launch its local home-sharing club this week, and is planning a day of lobbying action at City Hall Thursday.

“We’ve got campaigns up and running really in 50 places globally,” Lehane, a former aide to President Bill Clinton who the New York Times dubbed a master of the “political black arts,” told The Real Deal. “The backbone of all of those [is] the home-sharing clubs.”

“They’re made of middle-class people benefitting from the democratization of travel,” he added. “There’s no better advocate and voice for home sharing.”

In October, Airbnb hired Josh Meltzer, former deputy chief of staff to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a staunch Airbnb critic. Meltzer, who now serves as Airbnb’s director of public policy for New York State, has for the past several months helped oversee the company’s efforts to organize its members.

In San Francisco, a city with somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 hosts, Lehane estimated Airbnb was able to mobilize 7,000 people to advocate on the company’s behalf by contacting lawmakers and conducting ad-hoc campaigns via social media.

With roughly twice the number of hosts in New York City, he expects the club here could swell to twice the size of the one on the West Coast.

The company could certainly use all the help it can get. Earlier this month the watchdog blog Inside Airbnb published a report claiming the $25.5 billion startup purged more than 1,000 shady listings last year before presenting data to the public and government stakeholders in a bid for “transparency.”

Meanwhile, the company’s business model is facing new regulations and enforcement on the city and state levels, and doesn’t appear to be winning over any new friends.

“I’m very troubled by this,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this month of the Inside Airbnb report. “We certainly want to work with the sharing economy and I appreciate what’s good about the sharing economy, but if these reports are true and Airbnb is purposely withholding information and, in fact, providing misinformation, that’s unacceptable. We will not tolerate that,” De Blasio said.

Airbnb has a long list of politically-connected critics including landlords, hotel interests and affordable-housing advocates who claim the company is running illegal hotels that negatively impact the city in a number of ways. Back in October, TRD attempted to calculate the impact such short-term listings had on rents in neighborhoods such as Williambsurg and Hell’s Kitchen.

Airbnb, for its part, argues that it is a platform for economic good among the city’s struggling middle class, which it believes constitutes a silent majority that can help the company win favorable regulations.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the location of Airbnb’s planned lobbying day. It is City Hall.

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