Major Airbnb changes after series of incidents — what it means for you

Nov 14, 2019

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Airbnb, the $35-billion travel company set to go public next year, has appeared in a number of unflattering headlines recently, prompting a slew of new restrictions and regulations that could change how you travel with the short-term rental platform.

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First, there was a deadly shooting at a house party held at an Airbnb in Orinda, California, that prompted Airbnb to ban party houses.

Then there was a Vice article that exposed a nationwide network of scam artists who used Airbnb’s platform to list fake property listings and reviews — and prompted the FBI to launch an investigation. The following week, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced the company would verify all 7 million short-term rental listings on its platform.

(Photo by TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)
Airbnb is in the process of verifying all of their properties. (Photo by TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

Separately, in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, the city passed new restrictions on short-term rentals that more or less match up with the short-term rental laws in New York City. And in the state of Hawaii, Airbnb struck a deal with state regulators to hand over the information of its hosts to the Department of Taxation.

So, what do all of these different restrictions and regulations mean for travelers? Here’s a breakdown.

Listing verifications

On Nov. 2, two days after the shooting that left five dead in Orinda, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said Airbnb would ban all party houses — but he didn’t specify exactly what qualified as a “party house.”

Four days later, on Wednesday, Chesky issued a public statement where he specifically addressed the Orinda house party shooting and said that, effective immediately, Airbnb would start verifying all 7 million accommodation listings on the platform for accuracy and quality standards that include cleanliness, safety and basic home amenities. He also said that by Dec. 15, 2020, every listing on the platform would be verified.

Airbnb also instituted a new policy beginning Dec. 15 that, if a guest checks into a listing that doesn’t meet its accuracy standards, Airbnb will rebook the guest at a new listing of equal or greater value, or will refund that guest 100%.

And beginning Dec. 31, first in the U.S., the company is launching the 24/7 Neighborhood Hotline, which will connect to Airbnb’s own rapid response team, so anyone can call and speak to someone at Airbnb at any time. The hotline — which will have protocols and a training program designed in tandem with former police chiefs — will eventually roll out globally.

To specifically address unauthorized house parties, beginning on Dec. 15, the company will have more manual screening of high-risk reservations. Those are flagged by risk detection models that look at the duration of the stay, size of the listing and other factors that suggest a guest might host a party at that particular listing. This will begin in the U.S. next year and expand worldwide.

(Photo by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)
Airbnb is trying to crack down on high-risk rentals. (Photo by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

For travelers who book short-term rentals via Airbnb, all of these new policies should be welcome. If Airbnb is able to verify each and every single one of its listings for accuracy and quality, that would certainly give travelers who use its platform more peace of mind — beyond just looking at the reviews or listings and hoping for the best.

Knowing you can call Airbnb any time of day or night with any issues will also be a boost for customer service and assistance. And the promise of a 100% refund or getting fully rebooked if your rental doesn’t match up to its listing (or doesn’t exist at all) will also be welcome among guests.

And surely, Airbnb hosts will be happy to know Airbnb is being more proactive about flagging bookings that may be suspicious, because no one wants their home to be trashed.

An Airbnb spokesperson told The New York Times the company would verify those 7 million listings “using a combination of remote technology inspections and verifications from our community.”

“In theory, I welcome this, as should all legit hosts and property managers,” said David Jacoby, president and cofounder of Hostfully, a property management platform that helps hosts run their short-term rental businesses. He said he thought the promise to verify all homes was a “step in the right direction” but is skeptical that it can become a reality. “I wonder how much of this is just [public relations] versus having an actual impact. How exactly can they verify all 7 million homes?”

Given Airbnb’s track record with the Airbnb Plus program, it’s unlikely humans will be verifying all of the listings by late 2020.

Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

The listings featured in Airbnb Plus are all verified according to a 100-point inspection process, but though Airbnb hoped to have 75,000 homes in Airbnb Plus by the end of 2018, it fell short — either because it wasn’t able to approve them quickly enough or because Airbnb hosts didn’t think being in the program was worth spending $149 to endure the verification process.

Now that Airbnb is guaranteeing verification of all homes on its platform, there may be even less incentive for those hosts to enroll their homes in Airbnb Plus.

“Their rollout of the 100-point plan verification for Airbnb Plus was not the smoothest, and they had a huge backlog for a long time, and that was just for a fraction of the listings,” Jacoby, himself an Airbnb Superhost, told TPG.

Based off of the statement an Airbnb spokesperson gave The New York Times, it could be that Airbnb may follow in the footsteps of another online travel agency, Booking.com, when it comes to verifying its home listings.

A month ago, Booking.com began putting quality ratings on homes and apartments that you can book on its platform. To devise the ratings, Booking.com used artificial intelligence to give these homes ratings that were most equivalent to the kinds of ratings given to hotels, in order to manage guest expectations.

“The quality benchmarks are based on an A.I.-driven algorithm based on over 400 factors, including guest[s] previous booking behavior and the facilities and amenities provided at the property, as well as local relevance,” a spokesperson for Booking.com told TPG.

Screening ‘high-risk’ reservations

It’s possible some guests with so-called “high-risk reservations” may experience more intense vetting.

“What about the beautiful house in wine country where you want to get married?” Jacoby asked. “What about the huge home on [the] Jersey Shore where you can have a family reunion? Or the cabin in Tahoe where four families can get together for a ski weekend?”

Here, Jacoby said, it’s “less about the home and more about the guests.” But in an effort to quash unauthorized house parties, it’s possible certain travelers will find it more difficult to plan events at Airbnb properties. Jacoby said he also wonders if it’s time all platforms also performed more stringent background checks on all guests.

“There are some third-party companies that are getting popular in the professional vacation rental industry, such as Safely and Autohost, that focus on making sure every guest is a legit guest,” he said.

Courtesy of Airbnb
Airbnb is trying to take more control of safety for both hosts and guests. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb.)

Another Airbnb host whom The Points Guy spoke to said he found it puzzling that Airbnb addressed the Orinda house party shooting, and seemed to take responsibility for what happened there, but didn’t address what was detailed in the Vice article.

“[The house party incident] was a classic case where it triggered every single flag and it was so unfortunate,” he said. “It was a one-day booking [on] Halloween and the guest is from the local area, and the host obviously figured it out but he couldn’t discriminate against the guests, and the guests also said they were escaping the fires. What can Airbnb do if a guest just lies? This was 100% fraud.”

The recently revealed scam, however, “points to some very specific shortcomings” and “has everything to do with verifying the hosts,” whereas the house party issue has to do with guests.

Related: The best travel rewards credit cards for Airbnb

City and state regulations 

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Jersey City residents voted to enact stricter regulations on short-term rentals that mimic current regulations in New York City.

The city, which has approximately 3,000 Airbnb listings and is just a short train ride away from Manhattan, has seen a number of professional operators come in and rent out apartments and homes on Airbnb and other platforms because of its proximity to New York. The new rules effectively ban these professional short-term rental operators from running makeshift hotels.

New York City
Setting up an Airbnb in Jersey City will be much harder following this new legislation. (Photo by Christopher Postlewaite / NYC & Company)

Thanks to these new regulations, travelers may find fewer whole home listings in Jersey City going forward. And they should know that if they are able to rent out an entire apartment on a short-term basis in Jersey City, it’s likely illegal, so they should be prepared for potential repercussions.

As it has in cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, Airbnb also recently struck a deal in Hawaii to promise to hand over anonymized data about some of its hosts to ensure that these hosts are paying their taxes on their short-term rental businesses.

For travelers, this won’t have much of an impact, but this could affect Airbnb hosts who operate in Hawaii. It’s not inconceivable that the inventory might be affected as a result of the state’s crackdown on Airbnb hosts running vacation rentals without a permit or dodging taxes.

It’s not just Airbnb 

It’s clear these problems related to fake listings, tax-evading hosts, short-term rental regulations and house parties aren’t specific to Airbnb. They can apply to any short-term rental platform, especially those that don’t have human inspectors verifying each and every property.

And according to Jacoby, Airbnb is bearing an unfair share of the vacation-rental burden because it’s become the most visible name in the industry.

“Airbnb has millions of reservations every week, and they are just a fraction of the vacation rental industry,” he said. “Of course, crimes are going to happen once in a blue moon, just like crimes happen in hotels. If anything, Airbnb as a platform probably puts more energy into safety than other platforms. At Hostfully, we regularly hear about fraudulent bookings on Booking.com … [due] to the fact that payments do not go through Booking.com like they do Airbnb ….”

Booking.com said that its vetting procedures are stringent.

“Instances of fraudulent bookings are extremely rare, and Booking.com has a dedicated security team to help detect bookings from customers [who] don’t potentially intend to stay and continuously optimize the robust detection methods we have in place as part of our ongoing commitment to ensure genuine bookings for our partners,” a spokesperson for Booking.com said in an e-mail. “We also encourage partners to verify credit card details … [and] if our partners ever have questions, Booking.com‘s customer service and security teams are available 24/7 to support and assist.”

And Airbnb’s promise to verify all its listings going forward points to the fact that most, if not all, short-term rental platforms, will have to begin verifying their homes to ensure quality and safety going forward. It’s not just because of what’s happened, but because travelers are beginning to expect this which, overall, should be a good thing for everyone who uses Airbnb or any other short-term rental platform.

Whether Airbnb and other platforms can actually pull it off, however, remains to be seen.

Featured photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothe/Getty Images.

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