Airbnb bill’s passage is imminent, but optics war continues

Home-sharing company and its enemies fighting for hearts and minds

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The hotel industry and allied unions are winning handily as the clock runs out Airbnb’s effort to stop approval of their City Council bill, but both sides are playing like they’re behind.

The legislation—obligating the tech firm to share the names and addresses attached to each rental on its site with the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement—is now sponsored by 44 of the City Council’s 51 members, will be voted upon Wednesday and appears to enjoy the de Blasio administration’s support. State law bars the rental of an apartment for fewer than 30 days unless a permanent resident remains on site, and the bill would facilitate a crackdown on violators.

Every source Crain’s consulted, on both sides of the issue, believed the legislation would become law. But both Airbnb and the ShareBetter Education Fund—a group backed by the Hotel Association, the Hotel Trades Council and activist groups—have continued to ramp up their efforts to win over public opinion as the vote approaches.

ShareBetter launched yet another six-figure outreach campaign, consisting of television, radio and online ads running all week long, plus a mailer arriving Tuesday at roughly 75,000 homes in Airbnb-dense neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The spot hitting the airwaves is called “It’s About Transparency,” and reiterates arguments that Airbnb enables scofflaw landlords to take precious housing units off the market by effectively converting them to illegal hotel rooms.

In a sign of ShareBetter’s political dominance, the commercial even features clips of council Speaker Corey Johnson arguing for the bill in a recent appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall. The lawmaker, who captured his perch with the hotel workers union’s help and has co-sponsored the legislation, highlights a residential building in his Manhattan district that had become a rooming house for travelers booking via Airbnb. The ad’s title derives from one of Johnson’s quotes on the show.

The mail piece features a photo of that building on West 47th Street, headlines about the city’s lawsuit against the owner and a quote from a former tenant blaming Airbnb for his displacement. Meanwhile, the advocacy group New York Communities for Change, a ShareBetter affiliate, gathered 3,000 signatures on a petition in support of the bill.

A source linked to ShareBetter insisted the effort was necessary to head off a potential Airbnb lawsuit to stop the legislation from taking effect, as well as to raise awareness about the issue more generally.

“With Airbnb already threatening to sue and spending millions to hide bad actors, it’s important to continue to highlight stories of tenants being displaced from affordable housing,” the insider said.

Airbnb would not comment on the possibility of a lawsuit against the city. Similar litigation against its hometown of San Francisco resulted in a settlement in which the company agreed to have its hosts register with the authorities. A source close to the company acknowledged, however, that the New York law was a fait accompli.

That has not stopped Airbnb from escalating its own public-relations efforts. On Tuesday the company had an actor dressed as a caricatured “Mr. Big Hotel Tycoon” join protesters outside council offices across the street from City Hall. They held signs highlighting donations to lawmakers from Hotel Trades and players in the traditional lodging industry. They also maintained that the majority of Airbnb users are low-income New Yorkers using the site to bring in desperately needed funds.

It also sent a letter to Johnson signed by “That ’70s Show” actor Ashton Kutcher and executives from investment firms that have sunk money into Airbnb, including Y Combinator and Sequoia Capital. The missive asserts the new law would damage the city’s burgeoning tech sector and discourage startups from making the five boroughs their base.

“New York has also historically been a source of innovation, creating new economic opportunity both around the world and for hard-working families who call New York home,” the investors wrote. “Unfortunately, the New York City Council seems poised to strike a blow against the twin engines of innovation and entrepreneurship through Intro 981, which would force New Yorkers to consent to the disclosure of their most personal information simply for sharing their own home.”

Other than the lawsuit, a source indicated the company’s only remaining recourse would be to pass a bill introduced in Albany last year that would modify the state occupancy law so as to legalize most Airbnb rentals. But the proposal has remained entangled in the capital’s internal divisions and failed to advance in the legislative session that ended in June.

The state Legislature is not scheduled to reconvene until January.

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