Airbnb foes mobilize in Washington

Airbnb foes mobilize in Washington
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Airbnb's critics are bringing the fight over the popular home-sharing service to Washington.

They’re ramping up a push, backed by progressive favorite Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Tech: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court fight | Warren backs bid to block AT&T, Time Warner merger | NC county refuses to pay ransom to hackers Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (D-Mass.), to get the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to examine the short-term rental market where the company and others operate.

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Elected officials from cities like San Francisco and New York said in a letter Thursday to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez that the agency should collect data on the number of commercial operators in the market for short-term housing rentals.

“Technological advances can help create new wealth and increased GDP,” Warren said in a statement accompanying the letter. “But it is policy — rules and regulations — that determines who will have a meaningful opportunity to share in that new wealth.” 

“To assess the impact of the short-term rental market on our communities, policymakers in cities, states, and in Washington need reliable, unbiased data on the commercial use of online platforms such as Airbnb,” she said. 

The local officials were echoing a call made in July by Warren and two of her Democratic colleagues — Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Blumenthal: ‘Credible case' of obstruction of justice can be made against Trump MORE (Calif.) — that came in a letter to Ramirez after lobbying by Airbnb opponents. 

Neal Kwatra, the chief strategist for the Share Better coalition of Airbnb opponents, said that, “increasingly I think you’re going to see the requests for federal intervention — whether it’s asking Congress to make an information request of the company, whether it’s getting sponsors for a bill to revisit [the Communications Decency Act] to tighten the language and the ambiguity that currently exists."

 “If the FTC decides to punt on some things and says it can do other things, I think you’re going to see other federal agencies that people are going to turn to for some kind of engagement and relief until we have a more global resolution to some of these issues that Airbnb is so aggressively fighting at the city and state level."

Earlier this year, Ramirez said the FTC was reluctant to undertake a major data-gathering effort on short-term rentals. In a letter in early August, provided to The Hill by Feinstein’s office, Ramirez said that it would be “largely” outside the FTC’s scope even as it plans to issue a report about the “on-demand” economy.

“The report will certainly touch on the question of commercial activity by hosts in the short-term lodging market and discuss some of the currently available data relating to this question,” Ramirez wrote. “We have not independently collected any data of the type referred to in your letter, however, which involve issues largely outside of the Commission’s ambit as a competition and consumer protection agency.”

Kwatra said he thinks it’s “very positive” that the FTC was saying they wanted to make recommendations on the issue.

“I read it as, ‘We are going to have some suggestions for rules for the road here, but in order to make recommendations we need data, and it’s beyond our purview to obtain this data,’” he said. “Which means it may be the role for someone else to come in and get this data, procure this data to help the FTC and other agencies actually promulgate recommendations for the kind of rules for the road that are going to be necessary.” 

Peter Kaplan, a spokesperson for the FTC, declined to comment on the requests for a review of the short-term rental market.

Airbnb, a site where users can rent a room or house, has attracted its share of critics and regulatory attention on its way to a reported $30 billion valuation. The hotel industry and the unions that represent its employees see it as unfair that Airbnb doesn’t have to comply with the same regulations that they do; community advocates say the company’s customers have driven up rental prices and limited supply.

For much of the company’s eight-year existence, however, those fights have been centered on city and state regulations and laws. But this new push focuses on using the federal government’s resources to obtain more data about Airbnb’s impact. 

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents the hotel industry in Washington, later praised the July letter and said they had been “working closely” with the lawmakers for “for several months,” according to a copy of the message to its members obtained by The Hill earlier this year.

Airbnb has been mustering its own forces in Washington amid the offensive from its opponents.

The company last month retained the Podesta Group, a major Washington lobbying firm, to work on issues “related to the sharing economy,” according to a disclosure form posted last week. This spring the company contracted with Mercury, another consultancy, which joined two other lobbying firms that have been on the company’s roster for years. 

Early this month, the company also sent a memo to certain Capitol Hill offices — including those behind the letter to Ramirez in July — bashing the American Hotel and Lodging Association for what it says is a “a long history of fighting unions.”

Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas said the company was ready to engage with policymakers at the federal level.

“Hotels — including one executive who operates Kimpton hotels — have specifically expressed concerns about Airbnb preventing them from charging ‘gouging rates’ and taken credit for lobbying Members of Congress to lobby the FTC,” he said in an emailed statement.

“We're eager to discuss how Airbnb fights hotel price gouging and helps the middle class.”