Behind Airbnb’s data or: How we learned to stop worrying and love the home-sharing service

More than 2,500 whole-unit listings in NYC were rented for 180 days or more in the past year

A still from the film "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"
A still from the film "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"

Airbnb released data Tuesday on nearly 60,000 of its New York City listings, with the stated aim of helping “policymakers craft smart rules for home sharing.”

Though the company claimed the move would show “that home sharing supports families in all five boroughs and makes clear that illegal hotels are not welcome on Airbnb,” the severely-curtailed scope of the data released and the manner in which it was presented leaves many questions unanswered.

Rather than releasing the data online, the $25 billion technology startup only shared it with those who showed up in person at a pop-up office in the Flatiron District, for one day only. It was displayed on several computers, but minders made sure that no one took photographs or screenshots.

The data released mostly consisted of summaries, tables of information to supplement the picture painted in the company’s “Data on the Airbnb Community in New York” publication, also released Tuesday. That picture: a “host” pool renting spaces for limited periods — a median of 53 nights for all listings that were available for rent on the site as of Nov. 17 — and making a modest median annual income of $5,110 from the service.

But it also showed that nearly 55 percent of Airbnb’s active New York City listings — 19,742 out of 36,000 — are for entire homes rather than just a private room or share. Of hosts renting whole units, just 8 percent restricted listings to rental terms of 30 days or more. The other 92 percent, should they rent their units, would be violating city law, which forbids subleases below 30 days without the owner or lessee present.

More than 1,000 New York City hosts make more than $50,000 annually through Airbnb, with 126 of them making between $100,001 and $350,000 annually, according to the data.

The New York Attorney General’s office designated Airbnb listings as “commercial” if they were rented through the service at least half the year, or 182 days and up. The data release Tuesday show that more than 2,500 Airbnb whole-unit listings were rented for 180 days or more from November 2014 to November 2015.

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In October, The Real Deal attempted to determine the impact of these listings on the New York City rental market.

In a report the AG’s office released last year, which examined 2013 data subpoenaed from Airbnb, the total number of commercial listings was 1,961.

On Tuesday, Airbnb did indeed offer complete, by-listing information as promised, but it was heavily redacted and compressed. Listings were assigned revenue and rental-term ranges, but no specific, individual-listing data was presented. The entries also weren’t broken down by neighborhood, size, per-night price, and it was impossible to connect them with any specific, anonymously-identified host. All these details are available on independent web scraping and data analysis sites, such as Inside Airbnb.

It remains to be seen how the release will affect Airbnb’s standing with lawmakers in the city. The company is pushing for the rejection of proposals that would increase fines on those who violate sublease laws and increase disclosure requirements. But at least two City Council Members weren’t impressed.

“Airbnb only provided ‘anonymized’ data of its users who break the law — in other words, a useless disclosure that will do nothing to curb illegal hotels and tenant harassment,” Council Members Jumaane Williams and Helen Rosenthal wrote in a statement. “We have asked Airbnb to do one of two things: Show that they have a structure in place to require users to comply with our laws, and/or provide actionable data, such as addresses of illegally listed units that enforcement agencies can use. To date, we are sad to say that they haven’t done either one of these things.”

In a statement posted online Tuesday, Airbnb explained why it chose not to reveal more data. “Consumers expect and deserve that online platforms will protect their privacy,” the company said. “Providing this data to the public would violate privacy rights, potentially expose hard-working families to the risk of identity theft and would not assist New York leaders as they seek to craft sound policies.”