Clarence Fanto: Don't cry for Airbnb - it made its own bed

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LENOX — Shed a tear or two for Airbnb; it has had a bad couple of weeks, and not because Lenox voters (in a dismal 6 percent turnout) approved 75-day annual limits on short-stay vacation rentals offered by local homeowners, or 110 days by special permit from the Zoning Board.

Only joking about the tears, and it's noteworthy that Berkshire County is sixth among the leading home-sharing regions in the state, with 61,000 guests earning $9.8 million for hosts using Airbnb in 2018.

What's really hurting Airbnb is an erosion of public confidence following an unauthorized Halloween party at an Airbnb rental in Northern California that left five people dead. Two days later, the company announced a ban on "party houses."

Then, the online news site Vice reported a scam by some Airbnb hosts who rent inferior, sometimes dilapidated properties to unsuspecting guests who not only couldn't get refunds from the company, but were subjected to vile online "reviews" by the shady hosts.

The upshot; Airbnb will begin verifying that all 7 million of its worldwide listings are accurate and meet basic quality standards. Designed to improve user trust and make refunds easier to obtain when appropriate, the inspections will take a year to complete.

"People need to feel like they can trust our community and that they can trust Airbnb when something goes wrong," Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky said.

Here are the steps Airbnb will take, praiseworthy but certainly long overdue:

- Verify all listings on its platform by Dec. 15, 2020, for accuracy of photos, address, other details and quality standards, including cleanliness, safety and basic amenities. Those that meet Airbnb's quality expectations will be labeled.

- Rebook guests to a new listing or refund their money if a property doesn't meet its accuracy standards. By Dec. 31, 2020, Airbnb will launch a 24-hour hotline staffed by a rapid-response team in the U.S. so neighbors, guests and others can report a problem.

- Expand manual checks of "high-risk" reservations flagged by Airbnb's system to cut down on unauthorized parties. One-night reservations at large homes will get extra scrutiny, for example. Airbnb stressed that it doesn't consider race, profile pictures, gender or nationality when assessing the risk associated with a reservation.

"Most hosts do a great job, but guests need to feel like Airbnb has their back, and we believe this commitment is a necessary step in giving guests peace of mind," Chesky declared at a business conference this past week. "We're going to make sure we can stand behind every single listing, every single host."

The $30 billion company needs to improve its reputation in advance of an initial public stock offering expected next year.

Do these reforms go far enough? Not in the eyes of some skeptics demanding that the company voluntarily remove illegal listings.

And the verification process could be more rigorous. The company indicates users will be asked whether the information in certain listings turned out to be accurate, and Airbnb would verify postings of available houses and rooms "using a combination of remote technology inspections and verifications from our community."

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Airbnb, which claims listings in more than 100,000 cities and towns globally, plans to conduct especially thorough reviews of "high-risk" reservations that seem likely to lead to parties.

In his defense, Chesky stated that "about 2 million people a night stay in Airbnbs, and most without incident," but "it's hard to prevent every bad thing happening."

"Many of us in this industry over the last 10 years are going from a hands-off model where the internet is an immune system to realizing that's not really enough," he added. "We have to take more responsibility for the stuff on our platform. This has been a gradual, maybe too gradual, transition for our industry."

To make matters worse for the company, 70 percent of voters taking part in a Jersey City, N.J., referendum last Tuesday approved restrictions on short-term rental companies. The city is just a four-minute train ride across the Hudson River from Manhattan and has about 3,000 homes available to New York tourists at less-exorbitant prices.

The new rules requiring hosts to be present during a guest's stay are bound to reduce the number of listings controlled by major investors. Airbnb spent more than $4 million to hire pollsters, consultants, buy TV ads and send out mailers in its failed effort to defeat the restrictions.

The outcome is viewed as a major setback for Airbnb following laws passed by cities and towns around the world to regulate the explosive expansion of the home-sharing industry.

"They thought their money would win, and I'm proud that Jersey City said otherwise," said Steven Fulop, Jersey City's mayor. "If I was an investor in Airbnb, I would certainly take note, as this message of regulation wasn't sent by politicians, but it was dictated directly from the people."

He didn't mention that Airbnb opponents, primarily the hotel industry and the hotel workers union, spent about $1 million in the most expensive local referendum in New Jersey history.

As someone who has taken the annual family vacation at the same coastal Maine resort for more than 40 years, I have trouble relating to the idea of staying in a stranger's home. But I understand the appeal, especially to younger generations, of enjoying an extended family reunion, usually with animal companions invited and kitchen facilities provided, while paying less than the room rate at an inn.

Homeowners, especially those on modest or fixed retirement incomes, do benefit from supplementary earnings to cover their maintenance costs and their property taxes.

The compromise approved in Lenox on Thursday is a welcome example of bipartisanship in our hyper-polarized age. But, with half or more of the town's smaller B&Bs on the market, the appeal of staying in a quaint mom and pop inn seems to be fading fast.

That's in no small part due to the surge of internet-fueled short-stay listings that should carry a footnote — renter, beware.

Information from The Associated Press and The New York Times was included in this commentary.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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