Should Airbnb Be Responsible For Legal Transgressions By Its Users?

airbnb-people-logo-e1466198050263

By: Madison Jennings,

Airbnb is a home-sharing service modeled after the same ‘sharing economy’ principles as ride-sharing services such as Uber. ‘Hosts’ list their residences on Airbnb as available for a nightly fee to travellers who would rather not spend the money to stay at a hotel.[1] Together, platforms like Airbnb and Uber make up the budding ‘sharing economy’, which allows individuals to utilize services they may not have had access to otherwise.[2]

At it’s inception, Air Bed and Breakfast (as it was called then) consisted of a few air mattresses on the floor of a San Francisco loft.[3] Today, owners, tenants, and property managers all promote their properties on Airbnb. Some offer just a room, others just a couch, and still others the entire property for the duration of the stay.[4] As Airbnb has grown and it’s base of users diversified, several legal issues have made themselves readily apparent.

While Airbnb is without a doubt a massive boon to young people looking to travel to faraway places but who lack the financial resources to stay at traditional hotels, not everyone has a favorable impression of the home-sharing service. In places like New York and even San Francisco (Airbnb’s city of origin) there has been significant push back against the application.[5]

Conceptually, Airbnb’s services are not inherently illegal, but many of the available properties do run afoul of local housing regulations. For example, New York homeowners cannot rent their homes out for fewer than thirty days, unless they themselves are also living on the property during the rental period.[6] While this has little significance for the owner who rents out their spare bedroom, both the individual who rents out their apartment while they themselves travel and the property manager who rents short-term using Airbnb are technically in violation. For many, this is a problem. One New York man, who rented out his bedroom while on vacation, returned home to a potential $40,000 fine from the city, despite his roommate being in the apartment the entire time.[7] Because the host who advertised the space was not there, it violated the law. Had the roommate advertised the room instead, there would have been no issue.

Despite legalizing Airbnb in 2014, the service’s home city of San Francisco has grown steadily more cold towards the home-sharing market. In 2015, the city put forth a proposition to impose hotel taxes and housing codes upon Airbnb hosts.[8] Though the proposition was ultimately defeated, Airbnb had to invest $8.5 million to do so, showing that support for Airbnb isn’t quite as universal as you might think.[9]

Generally, the main complaint that cities level against Airbnb is that it enables illegal hotel operations not only to function, but to flourish, depriving the city of tax revenues.[10]

The hotel industry is, of course, not as taken with the Airbnb service as the rest of the world seems to be. This should be obvious: the existence of a cheaper alternative eats away at the profits for traditional hotels. Not as obviously, the prevalence of Airbnb as an alternative to long-term tenancy of rental properties may have serious consequences for residents of cities with already high costs of living.

By having a revolving door of short-term tenants cycle through a property, landlords can maximize the property’s income potential. While the effects of this are difficult to clearly observe, there have been several instances of long-time tenants having their leases terminated, only for the same property to appear on Airbnb as a short-term rental within a few weeks.[11]

On top of that, there’s little in the way of real protection for hosts who welcome Airbnb users into their homes. Visitors have often caused damage or become troublesome towards neighbors.[12] Less frequently, however, visitors have overstayed their welcome. There has been at least one instance of an Airbnb tenant scheduling a temporary stay, and then refusing to leave for just long enough to acquire tenant’s rights, forcing the host to go to the court system in order to evict him.[13]

Then, an issue arises when hosts who are themselves renters are either ignorant of or choose to deliberately ignore their own lease obligations to the owner of their home. Many leases have specific requirements for subletting, as well as rules about how many consecutive days a guest can stay. Renters who run afoul of these lease provisions while playing host on Airbnb can face eviction themselves.[14]

All of these issues stem from one core problem with Airbnb: the people who use it are typically not familiar enough with the applicable fields of regulatory law to make informed decisions. Additionally, it’s hard to imagine your average young adult considering potential legal ramifications for something as seemingly-innocuous as allowing someone to crash on their couch for a few days or even a few weeks. Only law students and lawyers seem to be so unyieldingly cynical.

Some users who have faced unexpected legal consequences of hosting on Airbnb have called for more accountability from the service.[15] While the website currently states clearly that hosts need to check their own local laws to assure their compliance, many users think that the burden should be on Airbnb to effectively warn individuals of potential problems related to their geographic area.[16]

The question becomes: should Airbnb be culpable for ensuring that no one uses their platform in a way that violates local laws?

The answer, I’d say, is likely to be ‘no’. Airbnb is a tool, and it is ultimately the responsibility of the user to ensure that their use is compliant with the law.

 

 

[1] See Biz Carson, How 3 Guys Turned Renting an Air Mattress in Their Apartment into a $25 Billion Company, Business Insider, Feb. 23, 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/how-airbnb-was-founded-a-visual-history-2016-2/#in-2007-the-two-roommates-living-in-san-francisco-couldnt-afford-to-pay-rent-the-pair-decided-to-turn-their-loft-into-an-area-that-could-fit-three-air-mattresses-along-with-the-mattress-and-a-nights-sleep-came-the-promise-of-a-breakfast-too-2.

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See Elie Mystal, Airbnb Lawsuit Pits Poor New Yorkers Against Middle-Class New Yorkers As Hotels Laugh And Count Money, Above The Law, Oct. 26, 2016, http://abovethelaw.com/2016/10/airbnb-lawsuit-pits-poor-new-yorkers-against-middle-class-new-yorkers-as-hotels-laugh-and-count-money/?rf=1.

[6] See Ron Lieber, A Warning for Hosts of Airbnb Travellers, The New York Times, Nov. 30, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/your-money/a-warning-for-airbnb-hosts-who-may-be-breaking-the-law.html.

[7] See id.

[8] See Alejandro Lazo and Douglas Macmillan, San Francisco Voters Reject ‘Airbnb Initiative’, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 4, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/san-francisco-voters-reject-airbnb-initiative-1446622854.

[9] See id. 

[10] See Will Coldwell, Airbnb’s Legal Troubles: What Are The Issues?, The Guardian, July 8, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/jul/08/airbnb-legal-troubles-what-are-the-issues.

[11] See Steven Hill, Evictions and Conversions: The Unsavory Side of Airbnb, The American Prospect, Oct. 19, 2015, http://prospect.org/article/evictions-and-conversions-dark-side-airbnb.

[12] See supra note 6.

[13] See Julie Bort, Airbnb Host: A Guest is Squatting In My Condo and I Can’t Get Him to Leave, Business Insider, July 21, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/airbnb-host-cant-get-squatter-to-leave-2014-7.

[14] See Stephen Fishman, Tenants: How to Make Airbnb Work for You and Your Landlord, Nolo, http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/tenants-how-make-airbnb-work-you-your-landlord.html.

[15] See Will Coldwell, Airbnb’s Legal Troubles: What Are The Issues?, The Guardian, July 8, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/jul/08/airbnb-legal-troubles-what-are-the-issues.

[16] See id.

Photo Source:

https://qzprod.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/airbnb-people-logo-e1466198050263.jpg?quality=80&strip=all&w=1600

Comments are closed