Airbnb also donated $15,000 to both the Republican Attorneys General Association and the Democratic Attorneys General Association, two national groups that raise and spend money to put candidates with favorable political ideology in the states’ top law enforcement posts.
Contributing to them ahead of the 2014 elections bought Airbnb a seat at the negotiating table, Hantman, Airbnb’s global public policy chief, told the Center for Public Integrity.
“We can educate attorneys general, policymakers, third parties,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation.”
For its part, the hotel industry cumulatively gave at least $134,000 to the attorneys general groups — part of the more than $4.8 million that it contributed to similar national organizations that boost gubernatorial and state legislative candidates in 2014.
In New York City, where Airbnb has faced the strongest opposition from regulators and affordable housing advocates, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a report last fall finding that 72 percent of units rented through Airbnb were functioning like illegal hotels by ignoring zoning laws such as setting up in residential-only buildings. He pledged to crack down on them with local regulators.
In a statement, Schneiderman said New York’s regulatory efforts were aimed to “ensure that, as online marketplaces revolutionize the way we live, laws designed to promote safety and quality-of-life are not forsaken under the pretext of innovation.”
Troy Flanagan, vice president of state and local affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said most hoteliers and innkeepers do not take issue with single-room listings when the host is present. The “entire place” rentals, which were the focus of Schneiderman’s report, most acutely threaten traditional hotels and create “horror story” conditions when unruly guests go unwatched.
Airbnb called the New York report misleading and countered that its hosts’ income and tourist spending injected $1.15 billion into New York City’s economy. Airbnb encourages its hosts to comply with relevant city, state and federal rental laws and provides them up to $1 million in coverage for household damage. However the onus to follow safety and zoning rules is on the individual hosts, not Airbnb, according to the company’s website.
When Schneiderman released the report, he was running for re-election. The Democrat, who won handily in November, received more than $100,000 from hotel executives and labor unions representing hospitality workers. One of the top donors was Jonathan Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels, who gave more than $31,000 to Schneiderman’s $10.2 million campaign, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Schneiderman’s press secretary Matt Mittenthal said the release of the report was not influenced by the hotel industry contributions, nor was it timed to correspond with the election, noting that the attorney general’s investigation of Airbnb began in mid-2013.
“Decisions on which cases we choose to investigate are made solely on the merits of each case,” Mittenthal said.
Meanwhile, a New York Assembly bill pending in the housing committee would require Airbnb hosts in New York City to pay relevant taxes, in addition to $5,500 for a permit from the city. The city could audit, inspect and levy up to $2,000 in fees to any hosts not in compliance with safety and insurance standards.
The Hotel Association of New York City has spent at least $60,000 so far this year to lobby state and city lawmakers and cites the bill as a priority in state lobbying records.
Assemblyman Keith Wright, who first introduced the bill in 2013 and chairs the housing committee where the bill has been pending since January, said the rentals were “quite a concern among certain neighborhoods in our city.”
Tisch, the hotel magnate, was a top donor to Wright’s 2014 campaign, which raised about $328,000 in total, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Tisch gave $4,100 to Wright, though the assemblyman said “there is no nexus, there is no connection” between his sponsored legislation and the campaign support from Tisch.
Wright, a Democrat who represents Harlem, said he has been friends with Tisch for 35 years, since they met as Tufts University students in the mid-1970s.
Through a spokesman, Tisch declined to comment on his political giving.
'They all die a quick death'
While state and local officials worry about taxes and regulations, small innkeepers are just trying to stay afloat.
The Inn at the Rostay has been a popular spot for more than 17 years, sitting just a five-mile drive from the Sunday River Ski resort in Bethel, Maine.
Airbnb now lists more than 120 properties in the same tiny town.
The inn’s owner Kathy Thrall has initiated and pushed for three different bills in the Maine Legislature that would require the short-term rentals to follow the same rules that apply to her inn.
“They are running a business,” Thrall said of her new competition. “They’re renting by the day, by the week, the month, so I see no difference between what they do and what I do.”
But all three bills she supported failed. “They all die a quick death,” Thrall said.
The most recent legislation would have required residents who rent their homes for less than a week to collect lodging taxes and obtain the same licenses as Thrall.
The Maine Innkeepers Association, which is affiliated with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, helped Thrall push the bill. But The Travel Technology Association hired Josh Tardy, a former Republican minority leader of the Maine House of Representatives, to lobby against it.
The Maine bill died in April after an aide to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, an outspoken critic of government intervention in business, suggested that the governor would veto any additional regulation of the lodging industry in the state that bears “Vacationland” on its license plates, according to news reports.
For his part, LePage did not appear to receive any donations from Airbnb or its executives but reported receiving $22,500 from the lodging and tourism industry out of more than $2 million raised for his re-election campaign last year, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. LePage did not respond to Center for Public Integrity requests for comment.
Unlike their Maine counterparts, the North Carolina legislature did pass a bill that requires Airbnb to collect county occupancy taxes in several parts of the state, including the state capital of Raleigh.
But the legislation passed in May was actually a partial victory for Airbnb — the culmination of a five-month public relations campaign to dissuade Raleigh from banning short-term rentals, which violated zoning restrictions in several neighborhoods.
To “reframe public opinion,” Airbnb hired a public relations and lobbying firm called Targeted Persuasion. Airbnb had used a similar strategy in New York to do on-the-ground canvassing via Peers, a company it launched that works as a hub for sharing economy participants.
In Raleigh, Targeted Persuasion ran an online petition and email campaign, then recruited speakers such as Airbnb host Gregg Stebben to testify at public meetings.