Airbnb is vowing to fight City Hall in New York by standing up for one occasional innkeeper facing a $2,400 fine for renting out his room.
Last month, a judge found that East Village resident Nigel Warren was effectively running an illegal hotel via Airbnb. For New Yorkers who help cover the cost of living in the country’s most expensive city by renting out their empty apartments on the service, the ruling was cause for despair. Airbnb has taken pains to point out the ruling does not make Airbnb itself illegal in the city. But it’s easy to believe that the threat of a fine and the ambiguity of the law and its enforcement could have a chilling effect on would-be room sharers.
Now Airbnb is pledging its own lawyers to represent Warren in his appeal and its own money to cover Warren’s legal costs. Airbnb isn’t actually a party in the case—the issue is that Warren rented out his apartment to strangers for short stays, not that he used Airbnb to do it. But clearly the ruling sets a precedent Airbnb has every reason to want to see quashed.
In a blog post today, Airbnb Head of Global Public Policy David Hantman wrote that the 2010 state law that Warren was found to have violated wasn’t meant to target Airbnb-style sharing:
This decision could not have more clearly shown that the New York law needs to be clarified and should be made more fair for regular New Yorkers who occasionally rent out their own homes to help make ends meet. In 2010, the State of New York passed a law designed to crack down on bad actors that operate illegal hotels—a goal we all share. Unfortunately, the 2010 law also had the unintended consequence of impacting regular New Yorkers.
Maybe, but it’s also understandable that neighboring apartment dwellers might take issue with a constant stream of strangers crashing without supervision in their building. The only thing that seems clear in this and other bubbling disputes over the so-called “sharing economy” is that, as usual, the law has not kept up with the pace of change.
Various sharing economy companies have tussled with city and state regulators across the country as they’ve grown in popularity. But the resistance appears to be waning. Big-city mayors are embracing the sharing economy to show voters (and perhaps deep-pocketed donors) they’re hip to Silicon Valley-style innovation culture. As more and more of those voters themselves start sharing their stuff across platforms like Airbnb, the political pressure will likely grow to craft smarter rules that don’t penalize the Nigel Warrens of the world.
At the same time, liberating the sharing economy from regulations that didn’t anticipate its existence could lead to a backlash if curbs aren’t put in place to prevent abuse. Building a marketplace for renting out your room while you’re away for the weekend as a new way to share a resource that would otherwise go to waste deserves to be called innovative. Letting your neighbor turn the pad next to yours into a de facto Motel 6 under the guise of “sharing” does not.