Airbnb purges thousands of “illegal” listings

Move comes ahead of court clash with attorney general

Airbnb's New York neighborhood guide
Airbnb's New York neighborhood guide

The room-sharing startup Airbnb said it removed thousands of New York City-based listings from its site, after New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed an affidavit Monday in support of his subpoena attempting to identify users who are illegally renting apartments on the site.

Schneiderman’s affidavit included research claiming nearly two-thirds of the listings on the site were illegal sublets. The Attorney General’s office also distributed a list of the 17 largest users on the site with at least one “illegal listing.” All of these users had at least 15 listings on the site.

In a post published on the Airbnb blog Monday, the company’s head of global public policy, David Hantman, described Schneiderman’s affidavit as an attempt to “distract” from his subpoena. Hantman also said the users on Schneiderman’s list were “notified” their listings would be purged.

“In an attempt to distract from their vast data demand on regular New Yorkers, the New York Attorney General’s Office has circulated a list of Airbnb users with a large number of listings. Every host on this list that rents apartments has been notified that they and their listings will be permanently removed from Airbnb,” Hantman wrote. “That means they can’t accept new reservations. Their profile pages may still be available on our site, solely to support existing reservations. When their existing bookings end, there will be no trace of them on Airbnb.”

In a statement sent to Business Insider after an inquiry about Schneiderman’s list, Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas described this purge as part of an ongoing effort that had been in the works for “months” and affected over 2,000 listings on the site.

“The New York Attorney General continues to say one thing and do another. He says he’s interested in just a few bad actors. If that’s true, he should ask us about them, and he’d find out they are already leaving our site,” Papas said. “We’ve already taken action to identify bad actors, and those hosts and more than 2,000 of their listings in New York are being removed from our platform under a plan that has been in place for months.”

Though the top five Airbnb users on Schneiderman’s list all no longer have listings on the site, the travel news site Skift wrote a report that described at least three of them as having had listings available in February, which indicates at least part of the purge occurred within the past two months. Several of their pages feature reviews from this month.

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Schneiderman opened an investigation into Airbnb last year and the company had been attempting to quash his subpoena. Schneiderman’s affidavit included research from Sumanta Ray, the director of research and analysis in the Investor Protection Bureau of the New York State Attorney General. The research attempted to identify listings on the site that violated a 2010 New York law that prohibits renters from subletting entire apartments for less than 30 days at a time in buildings with three apartments or more.

Ray found about 63.6% of the New York City-based listings on the site were entire apartments advertised as being for rent for periods of less than 30 days. However, Ray’s research did not take into account the size of the apartment building where the listings were located.

Airbnb’s statements noted the company claimed they provide New York with substantial tax revenue and economic activity.

“Airbnb guests paid $31 million in sales taxes to New York City and State while visiting New York,” Papas wrote. “According to an economic impact study by HR&A Advisors, the Airbnb community will generate $768 million in economic activity in New York City in 2014.”

Schneiderman’s office issued a statement indicating they had tried to work with Airbnb to stop the “illegal activity” on the site.

“Attorney General Schneiderman has worked in partnership with innovative tech companies like Facebook and Yelp to curb illegal activity on their sites. It’s disappointing that Airbnb has taken a different approach, resorting to name-calling and public relations to confuse the issue,” Schneiderman’s spokesman Matt Mittenthal said. “Airbnb is simply looking out for its bottom line at the expense of a law that protects quality of life for building residents and safety for tourists.”

A judge in the New York State Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments about Schneiderman’s subpoena on Tuesday.

Click here to view Schneiderman’s affidavit.