Airbnb’s Josh Meltzer on REBNY, the hotel industry and housing affordability

The company’s head of public policy sits down with TRD

Josh Meltzer
Josh Meltzer

New York City’s short-term rental war is at full swing, and Josh Meltzer is right in the middle of it.

Last week, news broke that City Council is working on a bill that would force Airbnb hosts to share their names and addresses with the Mayor’s office and disclose whether they are renting out a room or an entire apartment. Meltzer, who serves as the company’s head of public policy for the Northeast region, is leading the charge against the bill.

He recently sat down with The Real Deal to talk about the bill, the hotel industry, Airbnb’s impact on housing affordability, and his relationship with the real estate industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about the City Council legislation reportedly in the works, which would force Airbnb hosts to share their address, information about what kind of listing it is and some other information (with the city). It’s been reported that you oppose this legislation. Why?

At the end of the day, what we are looking to solve for is separating responsible hosts who share their homes to make some extra money from the people we all consider bad actors, the people who warehouse apartments, take long-term housing off the market and create unsafe spaces. If a bill doesn’t lead with that, the chances are very high that we are going to oppose it. At least from what we’re hearing, that’s what everybody wants to do. But unfortunately we are not seeing a lot of that in some of the proposals coming out, and that leads us to believe that there are other intentions, like, you know, political pressure of the hotel industry.

So you think this is basically a legislation driven by the hotel industry?

Absolutely. We have what I think is a very reasonable, very smart, very thoughtful proposal at the state level, introduced by Assemblyman Joseph Lentol and state Sen. John Bonacic, that is comprehensive. It would restrict home sharing in New York City to one home per host. It would require that all hosts register. It would allow platforms to collect remit taxes on behalf of hosts. And it would include several provisions that take into consideration trust and safety — not only for hosting guests, but also for neighbors. We think that piece of legislation is certainly open for negotiation. I think most stakeholders are interested in doing that, with the holdout being, frankly, members of the hotel industry.

To get back to the city council effort: what’s wrong with the city forcing Airbnb hosts to share information about their listings?

In a perfect world, we would reach some sort of agreement with the city. We would share data with them and they would enforce against the bad actors. The city compelling information about hosts we find to be problematic, frankly, because we’ve already seen a lot of instances where the city, sometimes working with the hotel industry, aggressively goes after hosts who, even according to some of home sharing’s most ardent opponents, should not be in the enforcement role. These are people who are sharing rooms in their homes who are all of a sudden seeing city agents show up at their door and slapping them for a bunch of fines for activity they think is perfectly fine and acceptable. There needs to be a real conversation about what the rules are, and who is protected.

The argument made by people who want to regulate Airbnb more strictly seems to be that it makes cities less affordable to live in. Do you buy that argument?

I don’t. Most people who are making that argument cherry pick data, and use flawed methodologies to reach a pre-determined conclusion. I think that’s something we saw recently in the Comptroller’s report. Anybody who knows anything about housing will tell you that home sharing doesn’t even make the top 20 list of reasons why housing is more expensive in a market like New York. In fact, you look at some of the things that would create more housing, and you see the hotel industry is on the other side of it. Pushing legislation that bans the conversion of hotels to housing is a good example.

You wrote this op-ed a couple of weeks ago, which you shared with us, in which you said the same anti-housing forces that fight new development in the city are also fighting Airbnb. Can you explain that argument?

A lot of the politicians who band together — for, I think, a lot of NIMBYish reasons — against home sharing, also oppose a bill at the state level that would update city zoning to allow more development in certain neighborhoods. That’s unfortunate and doesn’t do anything to drive down the cost of living in this city. Another example of this is legislation that wouldn’t allow for housing to be developed in (Industrial Business Zones), but would certainly still allow for hotels to be developed. We believe that home sharing is another way New Yorkers can make this city more affordable. If you look at their agenda, as far as I see it, it’s much more anti-affordable-housing than home sharing is.

I want to make sure I understand you correctly: are you saying home sharing doesn’t increase rents at all, or are you saying it does increase rents but it’s just a drop in the bucket and there are other, more important factors?

Even if there is any impact, it’s so marginal that it doesn’t even come close to any of the top 20 or more factors. If you add up all Airbnb listings in New York City, it’s 1 percent of the housing market. And we know that the vast majority of hosts in New York City are renting their own homes. We’re not even talking about people taking units off the market.

Of course you want to increase that number, right?

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

With an appropriate regulatory regime, yes. We support a concept that we call one host, one home. The idea here is that people are sharing their homes.

So you couldn’t have someone who owns five apartments renting them all out on Airbnb.

That’s exactly right.

If you cast yourselves as the real pro-housing faction fighting the anti-housing forces, how do we explain the Real Estate Board of New York siding with hotel groups against Airbnb?

I think part of it has been a concern about not having a lot of control over activities happening in their buildings. And look, honestly I think that is a legitimate concern. It took us probably longer than it should have to acknowledge that’s a real problem. We’ve worked in the last couple of years with the real estate industry to try to get a better handle on what their real concerns are and try to develop approaches for partnerships. We’ll present a range of options for landlords — some of which will not want any activity in their buildings, and some of which may.

What kind of partnerships do you envision between Airbnb and landlords?

That’s still very much in the early stages. The guiding principle is some sort of dashboard that we set up with them, that allows them to have insight and control of the activity that’s happening in their buildings.

So landlords could see who in their building lists on Airbnb, for example?

That’s right.

Have you been talking to landlords directly, or REBNY as well?

It’s really been REBNY, mainly. This is a series of conversations we’ve had over several years. Since the advertising bill passed in 2016, I think there was a bit of trust building that needed to happen, and I think a lot of that needed to come from our side. But I think we’ve demonstrated to them that we’re very serious about figuring out a way to address the concerns that their landlords have about home sharing.

There have been a lot of reports in the past year of cities tightening short-term rental regulations.  Are cities becoming more hostile to Airbnb in general?

I think it’s the opposite. We are very happy with some of the deals we’ve made, the partnerships we’ve engaged in with cities across the world. Hopefully New York follows suit soon. Berlin just announced what we would consider very fair rules on short-term rentals citywide. You look at a housing market like Vancouver, and we worked very closely with the government there to come up with a regulatory structure that works and that is currently being implemented. Short-term rentals as a policy issue are sort of easy to figure out once you take the politics out of it. In a lot of these markets you just don’t have the political dynamic that you have in New York.

So you’re saying dealing with politicians in New York is just uniquely difficult?

I would recharacterize that. I think the political dynamic created by the hotel industry makes it difficult.

You worked for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for many years. What do you make of the allegations against him?

I’m not going to comment on that.