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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Did You Hear about the Tyranny of… Legalizing Airbnb?

Truly, a Dystopian Nightmare

Did you see the one in which the terrorist organization recruits a kid to destroy a government facility, killing millions of innocent bureaucrats in the process?

What about the one with the lonely computer programmer who spends the majority of his life absorbed in a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game?

Or the one in which the eccentric billionaire is fearful of an immigrant and willing to do anything to put an end to the situation?

As various online discussions have demonstrated, ranging from Twitter to reddit, a writer’s choice of phrasing can dramatically impact a reader’s impression of any given topic. For instance, the films Star Wars, The Matrix, and Batman vs. Superman (I also would have accepted “the 2016 presidential election”), respectively, would have certainly enjoyed different receptions had the above descriptions been used to promote them, despite the fact that the summaries are technically accurate.

Used correctly, biased phrasing is a powerful tool. Consider Arizona’s recent move to intervene, with a bill signed yesterday by Gov. Doug Ducey, after numerous localities sought to prevent Arizonans from listing their properties on services like Airbnb. The measure, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2017, bars localities from banning spacesharing services, but allows them to set other regulatory guidelines and to collect taxes.

Now, if you’re a left-leaning blogger, you might choose to get a bit creative with your phrasing in how to characterize this legislation, such that private property owners regaining control over how to best use their property becomes:

Cities and counties are on the verge of losing their authority to keep property owners from renting out their homes for short-term and vacation rentals.

Reframed, it’s no longer about property owners regaining some small measure of freedom, but about victimized localities losing their all-important authority to tell those property owners what they can and can’t do.

This tactic seems to pop-up a fair amount where opponents of short-term rental services are concerned. It’s all about shifting the focus. So if you’re writing an op-ed in The New York Times about how Airbnb is “a problem for cities like New York and San Francisco,” you might write:

When you have a limited supply of apartments, and unlimited demand for those apartments, turning some apartments into hotels makes the remaining ones even more expensive.

It’s subtle, but the argument hinges on two rather weighty words: “you have.” The “you” in this instance refers to the city itself, which is positioned as “having” all housing within its borders, and distributing it as the city sees fit. Again, the focus has shifted away from increased choice in the marketplace – away from property owners’ ability to use their property reasonably – and back to the city’s vital power to determine how a property owner chooses to rent out his or her property.

Within the same issue of the Times, the deputy director of New York’s Citizens Housing and Planning Council has a similar beef with property owners renting out their properties on a short-term basis:

The type of academic and government data that housing researchers typically rely on doesn’t exist for this issue… But we know that the rise of informal vacation rentals in high-demand cities has an impact on housing supply, even if we can’t quantify it perfectly yet.

While I appreciate the boldness of the argument – I have similarly long-maintained that I am a superhero, even if I can’t quantify it perfectly just yet – a less-biased phrasing might have rendered:

Though I have minimal data that supports my statement, it is nonetheless true, as determined by me, on the grounds that any other possibility would really ruin the premise of this op-ed.

A compelling point, to be sure, but not necessarily the ideal basis for prescriptive public policy. In this particular case, the author takes it upon herself to suggest that private property owners should be compelled to take on roommates, rather than renting out spare rooms.

Lackadaisical rhetorical strategies aside, the main problem with ominous claims about the looming Airbnb apocalypse is that they are what the less loquacious among us would call “entirely false.”

Consider a study of the San Francisco housing market commissioned by Airbnb. Even after factoring in a healthy dose of skepticism, given the report’s sponsor, the data surely trumps vague gut feelings based on a confessed absence of any supportive data whatsoever.

The report, released last year, found that “a housing unit would need to be rented more than 211 nights annually on a short-term basis in order to out-compete a long-term rental.” How many units meet that criteria in San Francisco, a city that is supposed to be among the hardest hit by short-term rentals? 0.09 percent, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent. Moreover, the report found that “from 2005 to 2013 the number of vacant units in San Francisco has remained essentially unchanged,” a trend that flies in the face of those who forewarn Airbnb-created housing scarcity.

To its great credit, these facts are not lost on Arizona. In part due to Gov. Ducey’s stated commitment to make the state a welcoming home to innovative, consumer-friendly services like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and HomeAway, Arizona has been a great example for the rest of the country on issues related to “disruptive technologies.” The state’s three largest cities received some of the highest scores in the nation both on R Street’s annual Ridescore report and its Roomscore report – studies that look at the friendliness of regulatory frameworks governing for-hire transportation and short-term rentals, respectively.

With Ducey’s signing of SB 1350, Arizona deserves credit for shutting out the disingenuous cries of falling skies and sensibly demonstrating to the rest of the country that the relationship between state and local governments and cutting-edge startups does not have to be combative.

Cross-posted from R Street.

  • Ben Carnes is communications manager and a policy analyst with the R Street Institute.