Airbnb involvement could mark turning point in homestay discussions

FEELS LIKE HOME: Asheville homestay hosts have formed a coalition and held the first of two planned meetings with Airbnb, the online short-term rental platform. Homestay advocates say the online home-sharing platform may be willing to share listing information with the city, which could ease enforcement of homestay regulations. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Determining the final digit of pi, squaring the circle, finding the largest prime number: In mathematics, each of these quandaries represents an unsolvable problem. According to Phil Lenowitz, chair of Asheville’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee, that list should include figuring out a set of homestay regulations that work for everyone in the city.

Several years of community discussions, Lenowitz says, have failed to resolve deep-seated divisions about how homeowners should be allowed to rent rooms on a short-term basis. “We have people who feel strongly that they’re terrible and they hurt the neighborhoods, and then we also hear from people who say, ‘This is my house, this is what I want to do with it, and I need the money to help pay my mortgage,’” he points out. “It’s not solvable to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Until now, those conversations haven’t involved Airbnb, the San Francisco-based online lodging listing platform that is often referenced as a shorthand for the overall short-term rental industry. In its first known formal engagement with Asheville, the company sent two of its representatives to an Oct. 23 discussion of homestay policies sponsored by the Homestay Network, an informal local group representing over 600 legally permitted homestay hosts.

The firm has also committed to another meeting of over 50 stakeholders on Tuesday, Dec. 11, which is slated to include attendees representing homestay, neighborhood, business, affordable housing, real estate and city government perspectives. Although Airbnb declined to make a representative available for an interview on the subject, the company did provide a statement via email.

“Our host community in Asheville has always been very active and engaged with the city about the importance of fair and reasonable home sharing regulations — and how smart home sharing policy is economically and culturally beneficial to families, small businesses and neighborhoods overall,” Airbnb wrote. “We’re pleased to have the opportunity to join our hosts for this gathering and look forward to continuing to support our Asheville hosts as these conversations continue.”

At the table

Airbnb’s engagement is critical, explains Asheville City Council member Vijay Kapoor, because access to its database would greatly simplify enforcement of homestay regulations and compliance among permit holders. The city’s Planning & Urban Design Department currently spends $30,000 per year on Host Compliance, a third-party vendor that searches for unlicensed homestays, and department director Todd Okolichany has characterized his staff’s enforcement efforts as “complaint-driven” instead of proactive.

If Airbnb shared its data with the city, staff could directly cross-check Asheville’s permitted homestays against those listed online and target any operating illegally. “That would be able to get to the heart of enforcement, as opposed to having to work around it,” says Kapoor, who attended the Oct. 23 meeting along with Council colleague Keith Young.

Jackson Tierney, a homestay permit holder and organizer of the Homestay Network, says he had asked the city to begin data-sharing negotiations with Airbnb in August 2017 but that previous efforts to contact the company, led by former City Attorney Robin Currin, were met with no response. When he reached out to Airbnb himself in early October this year, however, a representative contacted him within three days.

While Tierney can’t explain this difference in Airbnb’s reaction, he says he was encouraged by the company’s willingness to collaborate with the Homestay Network. “They’re excited about rolling up their sleeves and working with us to enforce our current rules,” he says. “They do not have on their agenda to expand the current rules. They recognize that’s not politically correct at this point, so they just want to work to get better and enforceable rules, as we do.”

Kapoor suggests that Airbnb’s recent rapid growth in the Asheville market may have brought the platform into the current talks. The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority estimates that Airbnb makes up roughly 75 percent of local homestay bookings and grew from 91,459 room nights in 2015 to 392,482 nights in 2017, representing about $53.8 million in revenue.

“In the conversations we were having, we were citing examples of San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans,” Kapoor says. “Clearly, Airbnb would not have been there unless they understood the importance of Asheville to their business model.”

Common ground

Tierney acknowledges that previous efforts to resolve different perspectives on homestay regulations have often ended in frustration. But Airbnb’s involvement, he says, could spur “a bit of a reset” on how the rules are developed and enforced.

The Homestay Network, Tierney is quick to clarify, believes the city has gotten the regulations mostly right. “We are not changing any major fundamental building blocks of the rule. In general, we’re not there to expand the scope or contract it or change people’s roles,” he says. “Our main goal is to work with the city to improve compliance of existing homestay rules at a lower cost.”

Under the city’s current Unified Development Ordinance, a homestay is defined as “a private, resident-occupied dwelling unit, with up to two guest rooms where overnight lodging accommodations are provided to transients for compensation and where the use is subordinate and incidental to the main residential use of the building.” Operators, who obtain an annual permit for the homestay, must live at the property as their primary residence and be present overnight anytime lodgers are occupying the guest rooms.

However, Tierney does hope that bringing Airbnb into the conversation could lead to shifts in what he calls “small-p” policy, the tactics that city staff employ to enact the strategies set by City Council. The Homestay Network is particularly interested in revisiting a package of staff recommendations advanced by Council’s Planning & Economic Development Committee on Aug. 13, which include changes to the definition of a kitchen, additional standards on the use of bedrooms and stronger penalties for illegal operators.

“As a group, we feel the city does not have a full appreciation of how we run our businesses and the ways that some permit holders are skirting the rules,” Tierney says. “We think we can come up with more effective ways of weeding out bad actors while respecting the rights of hosts that are trying very hard to be in compliance.”  

To that end, the Homestay Network’s meetings are being led by Cheri Torres, a homestay permit holder and professional facilitator. Through a process called appreciative inquiry, she explains, different stakeholders can come to realize that they share core values in their approach to difficult subjects.

Those in attendance at the Oct. 23 meeting, says Torres, all expressed similar reasons for caring about homestay regulations. “There was this commonality across everybody that was there: neighborhood integrity, safety for guests and for residents, residents being able to gain from tourist dollars, relative ease of compliance and enforcement,” she recalls.

Kapoor agrees that the discussion was more positive than others about homestays that he’s observed during his time on Council. “The approach had been, up to this point, perhaps somewhat antagonistic toward staff and all around,” he says. “I think this type of meeting was a chance to say, ‘Look, can we have more of a dialogue about this?’ — reserving one’s rights, of course, to push back.”

Terms of debate

It remains to be seen if this consensus will hold with the addition of city staff, who declined Tierney’s invitation to the Oct. 23 discussion. Staff members are also on the guest list for the upcoming meeting on Dec. 11, but according to city spokesperson Polly McDaniel, none will attend.

“The city would be happy to meet with Airbnb and any other parties if the topic is how we can better share information,” comments Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball. “The invitation we received from Mr. Tierney was a request to brainstorm policy recommendations for Council consideration around the definition of a homestay and how it should be enforced.”

Tierney, however, believes that Airbnb’s involvement is a good reason for the city to re-evaluate both its technological tools and enforcement methods. “I don’t think it’s possible to separate the two,” he says. “We’re just trying to offer a glimpse beyond the horizon of some things that [staff] may not have considered or could not get in terms of having certain people, i.e., Airbnb and the other listing platforms, to the table.”

City Council, Tierney continues, has signaled more of a willingness to take that broader perspective. The city’s Planning & Zoning Commission, he points out, has postponed its next consideration of the changes previously recommended by PED until Tuesday, Feb. 6.  “For me, that was kind of a watershed moment, because they really did not have to do that,” Tierney says. “They at least want to explore and listen and find out if they can build on [the process].“

Platform diving

Any new actions on homestay enforcement may be contingent on homestay players other than Airbnb. If the company agrees to share data with the city, suggests longtime homestay opponent and architect Jane Mathews, unpermitted homestay operators may migrate to competing platforms such as Expedia or Booking.com that do not have such agreements.

“A lot of the illegal homestays I’ve known about have been off the Airbnb radar screen,” Mathews says. “Getting Airbnb data may be helpful, but it’s really just the tip of an iceberg.”

Tierney says that Airbnb has also expressed this concern and hopes to bring other platforms into the data-sharing conversation. He has contacted both Expedia and Booking.com with invitations to the Dec. 11 meeting, but representatives have yet to confirm their attendance.

Asheville still has options if other rental sites remain uncooperative. A “fallback position” suggested by Airbnb, Tierney says, is a city ordinance allowing only platforms that share data to advertise homestays in the city. “If the others don’t play, then by definition, everybody who lists on those are illegal and cannot continue to do business within the city. Obviously, it’s a bit of a draconian step,” he explains. “We’d rather have them at the table, sharing their experiences with us and being part of a more comprehensive enforcement solution.”

For now, the Homestay Network is focusing on a more diplomatic approach. “Airbnb really wants to work with us,” Torres believes. “They want to make this work for everybody, and they’re sincere about doing that.”

Should this approach prove successful, Torres adds, it could provide a model for handling Asheville’s many other complex challenges. “What makes [a topic] contentious is when people view the city as trying to do something to them, as opposed to with them,” she says. “When the people are on board in helping to create some future state, they are happy to walk into that state.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and a reporter for Mountain Xpress. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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