After three young people were killed in a shooting at an Airbnb house party in Toronto last week, the company announced that it will be putting new restrictions on Canadians under the age of 25 using the service.
But the company admits the new rules—which don’t allow users aged 24 and under to book entire homes when hosts aren’t present, close to where they reside—can be circumvented.
“The rules aren’t infallible and there are ways to get around them,” but they’re designed to “cause friction” and “discourage young users from using the platform for parties,” Chris Lehane, the senior vice president of global policy and communications for Airbnb told reporters Wednesday.
“But things will still happen,” Lehane said.
Users who have a “proven track record,” meaning at least three positive reviews, will be exempt. These rules only apply to people in Canada for now, although Lehane did not rule out expanding them to other countries.
Airbnb also announced Wednesday a line that neighbours can call to voice complaints, which will be up and running next Monday. And Airbnb announced a partnership with Canadian Doctors for Protection From Guns, a small advocacy group that was formed in Toronto last year. It’s unclear what exactly that partnership will involve.
Airbnb was in full P.R. crisis mode in response to a deadly shootout Friday at a Toronto venue booked through the home-sharing platform. The shooting at the condo on the waterfront left three men under the age of 21 dead.
The shooting took place inside and outside a unit on the condo’s 32nd floor that was rented through Airbnb. The three men killed are all from the Toronto area and have been identified as Jalen Colley, 21, Joshua Gibson-Skeir, 20 and Tyronne Noseworthy, 19. Noseworthy is a rap artist who goes by the name fourty4double0 and is half of the rap duo Tallup Twinz.
The deadly party has fuelled outrage over the city’s inability to regulate the home-sharing platform. This is the ninth time gun violence has erupted at an Airbnb party in the Toronto area since March 2019, and the second time it’s happened in that very building (the previous incident was on January 11, 2019).
It marks the third time there has been gun violence at a Toronto venue rented through Airbnb since the company announced it would crack down on “party houses” in November 2019.
A shooting at an Airbnb party house on Halloween last year that left five people dead in Orinda, California, prompted CEO Brian Chesky to announce a ban. On Twitter, Chesky said Airbnb was redoubling “efforts to combat unauthorized parties and get rid of abusive host and guest conduct.”
But Airbnb’s attempt to ban “party houses” doesn’t seem to be working and urban law expert Mariana Valverde says the latest deaths are a tragic example of how difficult it is to know what actually happens on the platform.
Toronto has been trying to enforce rules limiting Airbnb in the city, but the bylaws designed to crack down on commercial hosts—as opposed to people using it once in a while to rent out their place when they’re on vacation—have been delayed. It’s not clear if those rules could have prevented every instance of “party house” violence. But many believe a lack of transparency and accountability from Airbnb is part of a bigger problem that cities around the world are grappling with.
According Valverde, Toronto is an example of how “nearly impossible” it is to make Airbnb follow municipal rules. “Many cities including Toronto have very weak, belated rules, and they don’t have the enforcement capacity. But it is the city that has to police these things. A private company is never going to seriously police and punish the very people that are making it a rich company,” she said.
Toronto city council approved rules limiting Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms in December, 2017. But according to government documents, a coalition of landlords, many who each own multiple units, are behind a series of appeals that have dragged on for years and are ongoing. In November, a provincial tribunal gave Toronto the greenlight to go ahead with its regulations. A city spokesperson said in a statement to VICE that it plans to begin licensing short-term rental companies such as Airbnb and registering hosts this spring.
Like Toronto, New York and Barcelona are tourist hubs with expensive housing. But those two cities have gone an extra step in dealing with Airbnb, by trying to force it to share its data. That hasn’t exactly worked out.
New York crafted a bill requiring Airbnb and other online booking services to give the city data on rental listings in July 2018. Airbnb and HomeAway sued and got an injunction to block it. So New York City subpoenaed Airbnb for data on nearly 20,000 listings for entire homes or accommodating three or more guests, which aren’t allowed. Litigation is ongoing.
On Tuesday, Barcelona accused Airbnb of failing to crack down on hosts who violated short-term rental rules. The San Francisco-based tech giant said it isn’t able to monitor every listing (there were 20,800 in Barcelona in 2018). In a written statement to Business Insider, it said that when Airbnb has evidence of listings in Barcelona that are violating regulations, appropriate measures are taken.
There are mixed results in cities that try to get tough with Airbnb. In the Toronto suburb of Oakville, the town’s council tried to slap home-sharing platforms with what are perhaps the most expensive fees on short-term rentals in North America. In November 2018, a bylaw required platforms including Airbnb to pay an annual licensing fee of $44,500 (nine times more than Toronto’s $5,000 licence fee).
As a result, Expedia, Vrbo, and other companies stopped carrying Oakville listings. But Airbnb currently has more than 300 listings in Oakville—and hasn’t paid for a license.
Oakville says Airbnb could face a $50,000 fine for its first bylaw violation, and an additional $100,000 for further offences. It’s not clear what Oakville will do to try to get Airbnb to comply with any of its rules.
Valverde says reining in a multinational, which was recently valued at US$38 billion, is complicated because it doesn’t own the houses it lists. And there are easy ways to get around rules, such as using a different postal code to hide where a listing is actually located.
Toronto’s inability to constrain Airbnb has led to a proliferation of “ghost hotels”—units that are used as hotels for visitors by investors. According to Fairbnb, a coalition of groups representing hotel workers and unions, there are 6,500 ghost hotels listed in Toronto.
The trouble with Airbnb, according to Fairbnb researcher Thorben Wieditz, is a lack of transparency, manifested in its failure to monitor what happens with the help of its platform. “If I want to throw a party, and invite 50 guests, I can look on Airbnb for a mansion and book it. One person, one credit card and you can do whatever the hell you want while you’re there,” he said.
He says its presence pushes up housing costs by making it more financially attractive to rent out an investment property to short-term guests rather than people who live and work in the city. And Airbnb’s presence changes the character of a neighbourhood for the residents.
“That’s something that’s concerning to people in Toronto, and cities all around the world that are dealing with these same issues over and over again,” he said.
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