Mi Casa Es Su Casa

Airbnb’s Annual Report Makes No Mention of Regulatory Trouble

Sure, the authorities aren't banning the service--but that doesn't mean it's wholly in the clear.
Look at all them bubbles. (Photo: screencap)

Look at all them bubbles. (Photo: screencap)

Airbnb had a good year, and the company wants everyone to know it. Today the site released a beautifully designed series of stats touting its progress over the last year. Listings are at 300,000, up from 120,000 at the start of 2012. The platform has served 3 million guests in 2012 alone, even as the company opened 11 new offices and launched in nine new markets.

The presentation also cites heartwarming stories like that of Jörg, a former West German guard on the Berlin Wall who took a trip and found the man who’d served as his double on the East German side. It wraps up with a triumphant declaration: “192 countries. Thousands of neighborhoods. Millions of users. One community.” The background: A photo of two people hugging.

What you won’t see amid all this glowing good feeling: Any mention of fines or legal troubles, which haven’t exactly been magicked away just yet.

Just this week, WNYC picks up the sad tale of Nigel Warren, who rented his apartment out for $300 and now faces up to $30,000 in fines. Even if he manages to win the case, who wants to devote months to a long, terrifying slog through the Kafka-esque criminal justice system–and for just a few hundred bucks? Skift estimates that as many as half of the site’s New York listings might be illegal under various local laws.

Meanwhile, the platform is in a bit of a tiff with The Next Web over whether using Airbnb violates Amsterdam’s laws against illegal renting. The service isn’t specifically banned, but if you want to rent your place you’re supposed to have a permit, and more than a few hosts don’t have permits.

Sure, the authorities aren’t exactly cracking down in most places, and what local government wants to be seen as harsh on startups? Even Washington, D.C. was willing to sit down with Uber, eventually. But New York and other cities can’t have under-regulated flophouses springing up like grungy daisies, and it’s no small thing to carve out exemptions favoring specific companies. (Not to mention the entirely separate issue of whether your lease allows subletting.) Even mainstream outlets like MSN Money, your parents’ favorite news source, have taken to writing fear-mongering articles about the pitfalls of renting on the site.

With the service poised to go mega-mainstream, Airbnb–to put it bluntly–does not need this shit right now.

The company is doing what it can to combat concerns. There’s a new public policy blog to comment on stories like Mr. Warren and the dustup over Amsterdam, for example. There’s also some nice-making going on: Witness the platform’s pitching in after Hurricane Sandy, working with the mayor’s office to offer free housing to the displaced. All the while, the company is “actively discussingthe laws on the books with city and state officials.

But until Airbnb has worked out some solution to the patchwork of local laws around the world–even if it takes going city by city to get them changed–there’s always the possibility of trouble.

Let’s hope there’s some stats showing progress next year.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com