Working Families Party joins the anti-Airbnb brigade

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on May 2, 2014

From The News Desk

The latest to join the fight against Airbnb in New York is the progressive Working Families party, a political group known for its staunch defense of labor unions and affordable housing. Earlier this week, the organization launched a petition urging its members to stand in solidarity with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's attempt to subpoena users' data from apartment-sharing platform. Working Families' reason is simple: Airbnb is bringing up the rent despite what the company says.

At its core is the claim that Airbnb is hurting the New York housing market. According to a count from Schneiderman's office, the top 40 users on the site collected a whopping $35 million over the last three years. His belief is that the people making real money on this platform, and therefore making the company more palatable for a probable IPO, are those acting illegally by operating hotelier schemes.

Airbnb has rebutted the claim with its own study that cites 62 percent of its New York hosts use the site to help them stay at their current apartment. The company added that those in this bracket earned an average of $7,530, which Airbnb deemed a "modest, but significant amount that can make a huge difference for families." As it sees it, the city should be thanking Airbnb.

The Working Families party calls bull on this claim. The progressive organization believes that what Airbnb is really doing is taking away prime real estate from those who really need it. "The folks, whom Airbnb itself has called 'bad actors,' buy up dozens of apartments to operate them as illegal hotels and take them off the market," said Khan Shoieb, communications director for the New York Working Families Party.

His party believes that Airbnb isn't working to rid itself of these bad actors, but is instead trying to skirt the issue. "The subpoena came after an earnest attempt to cooperate with Airbnb to crack down on illegal hosts," he told me.

In this months-long battle, which involved endless mudslinging and PR-wrangling, this could be one of the more significant developments. At its core, Working Families is standing by the claim that Airbnb is not helping the New York housing crisis -- for the most expensive city in the country, mind you -- and is instead exacerbating it, making it harder for New Yorkers to find reasonable housing.

Shoieb also countered the claim that Scheiderman is acting out of an anti-tech sector vendetta. In a follow-up email he wrote, "Other firms have cooperated with smart regulation and thrived -- why can't Airbnb do the same?" He was referring to the Attorney General's work regulating fake Yelp reviews, which the company cooperated with.

Keep in mind that Working Families quite often allies itself with Schneiderman. The party supported him when he ran as successor to Andrew Cuomo as Attorney General in 2010. A few months back the progressive group also backed the current AG when he went head to head with the governor over how a $600 million housing foreclosure settlement was to be spent. So perhaps this development isn't the most surprising.

Either way, it does put a ruffle in Airbnb's claim that Schneiderman is overly extreme with his demands of the company. As Shoieb and his party see it, Schneiderman is doing what he must in order to find out who's operating illegally: "He's made it clear he's targeting the worst hosts."

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