Airbnb purged over 1,000 listings before December data release: report

Short-term rental behemoth allegedly doctored numbers to present more flattering profile

(Credit: Murray Cox and Tom Slee)
(Credit: Murray Cox and Tom Slee)

UPDATED: 4:05 p.m., Feb. 10, 2016: In the thick of a bitter battle with the city over regulation of its service, home-sharing giant Airbnb allegedly removed over 1,000 controversial New York City listings from its site just before its much-hyped data release in December, according to a new report based on data scraped from Airbnb’s website.

More than 1,000 of the 20,000 whole-unit listings on the platform disappeared from the site between Nov.1 and Nov. 20. according to the report, prepared by independent data analysts Murray Cox (of Inside Airbnb) and Tom Slee. These purged listings, according to the report, allegedly included a large number of apartments rented by “hosts” with multiple listings on the site, a practice that’s come in for withering criticism. For its part, Airbnb roundly criticized the report’s findings and said it routinely reviews its listings.

Between those dates, these hosts’ proportion of all Airbnb listings in the city dropped to 10 percent from around 19 percent, according to the report.

The timing is significant because Airbnb’s Dec. 1 data release focused on a single-day’s snapshot of activity on the site. That day? Nov. 17.

“The intervention was so specific, and the timing so close to the date of the New York City snapshot, that the conclusion is inescapable,” Cox and Slee said Wednesday. “Airbnb removed listings from its site so that its data set would paint a more attractive picture of its business, to better influence media and public opinion.”

Less controversial uses of the site weren’t affected by the apparent purge, nor were the service’s listings in other cities, the report stated.

Airbnb has faced sustained criticism from New York community groups and public officials who have said many of the platform’s users break city subleasing laws, and that a significant minority use it to run commercial operations that effectively remove apartments from the city’s rental rolls. (In October, The Real Deal attempted to calculate the impact of Airbnb’s so-called “commercial users” on rents in neighborhoods where the service is popular.)

The New York Daily News first reported the story.

An Airbnb spokesperson vigorously opposed the report’s findings.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

“The facts are clear for all to see – the vast majority of our hosts are everyday people who have just one listing and share their space a few nights a month to help make ends meet,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement to TRD.

Citing its internal data, Airbnb pointed out that the number of hosts with only one listing on the site on Nov. 17 – 95 percent – was largely unchanged as of this past Monday, Feb. 8, 2016, when the figure stood at 94 percent.

Several hosts with multiple listings on the site – who asked not to be identified for fear of persecution or retaliation by the company – told TRD back in November that they’d been contacted by the service and told that some of their listings would soon be removed.

The company’s statement Wednesday made reference to regular maintenance that Airbnb performs, which includes purging listings.

“Airbnb is an open people-to-people platform where listings come on and go off throughout the year,” the company said. “We’ve also done significant work to educate our community about what is in the best interest of their city and we routinely review our listings to ensure guests are having the quality, local experience they expect and deserve.”

Local officials said the report showed that Airbnb was not living up to its promise of transparency.

“Mark Twain reminded us that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” New York State Senator Liz Krueger said in a statement. “Airbnb has certainly mastered the third kind. Far from being open and transparent, this report shows that Airbnb intentionally misled the press and elected officials in New York.”

A spokesperson for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman pointed out that, if true, the allegations reflect a pattern of behavior by the company.

“If this analysis is accurate, it appears that Airbnb is again trying to downplay the number of illegal apartment listings on the site,”  the AG’s office said in a statement. “Just as it did in wiping 2,000 illegal listings after we confronted the company in 2014, Airbnb once again appears to have manipulated data to conceal illegal activity. Airbnb continues to show a blatant disregard for New York laws designed to protect the rights of tenants and prevent the proliferation of illegal hotels. If Airbnb wants to live up to its promise to be a good corporate citizen, it will take responsibility for policing and preventing illegal activity on its site.”

A statement from the New York Attorney General’s Office was appended.