Negotiating for fair regulatory oversight has long been a battle for globally-successful businesses. Since catapulting onto the international stage, home-sharing platform Airbnb has faced harsh – even hostile – regulatory pushback from governing bodies worldwide. An organization known for its good nature and cooperative spirit, Airbnb makes it a point to respond to each restrictive measure with a humble call for reconsideration. A couple months ago in Toronto, for example, legislators slammed the platform with startling regulations including but not limited to: capping home rentals to 180 days per year, limiting short-term rentals to an owner’s principal residence, and forbidding the listing of secondary suites as short-term rentals. In response, Airbnb sent a letter to ask the Toronto city council to rethink its position on the matter, pointing out therein that such regulations would severely limit the supplementary income that casual users could earn through the service and undercut the economic benefit the platform provides to the middle class. As of mid-December, Toronto legislators remain unmoved in their decision.
But, why? As I wrote on my last blog on the home-share giant, Airbnb operates at a significant benefit to tourism economies and host cities worldwide. In the Spanish city of Barcelona, the platform sparked over $175 million in economic activity and supported over 4,000 jobs in 2014 alone. Yet, Barcelona is one of Airbnb’s sternest hosts and harshest regulators. The city requires Airbnb users to apply for a special license before listing their property on the site – with the not-so-small catch that the city stopped granting these licenses in 2014. Currently, the only way to enter a new Airbnb listing would be to purchase an existing property with a license. The city even fined Airbnb 600,000 euros for what it perceived to be the company’s flouting of regulation via “offering unlicensed accommodation.” Now, this sounds overly restrictive (and it is!) but the city’s rules come from a place of care. Leaders in and beyond Barcelona want to prevent their homes from turning into Venice-esque theme parks and further preserve in-city housing for long-term residents.
This seems reasonable at first glance; however, I would argue that these fears overlook some important details about the way Airbnb chooses to do business. Airbnb is first and foremost a home-sharing platform – an estimated 81% of its hosts share the home they live in rather than keep an unoccupied property on reserve for short-term guests, and thus minimize the risk to local housing supplies. Secondly, Airbnb prides itself on offering an authentic look into a host city’s culture; the company has no interest in turning cities into been-there-done-that attractions! Thirdly, Airbnb is not digging in its heels. While the company has spoken out against increased regulation, it has done so with respect and thoughtfulness. This collaborative attitude can be summed up in comments made by Alex Dagg, manager of public policy for Airbnb’s Canadian branch in response to Toronto’s increased regulations: “What we’ve tried to do is say to the federal government, we’re here, we’re happy to engage, we’re happy to have conversation with you.” Domestically and internationally, Airbnb faces regulations which assume it to be a voracious corporate power or a disruptive interloper in the local landscape – but it isn’t. Airbnb doesn’t need more or stricter regulations, it needs a place at the table! Airbnb and its host cities stand to benefit from increased collaboration and conversation, but those benefits can only come to pass if we stop over-regulating and begin establishing proper communication channels.