Airbnb incidents make it more important than ever to know guest and host rights

Apr 22, 2022

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A string of safety issues at U.S. Airbnb rentals in recent months raises the question of what protections hosts and renters have when things get out of hand.

Two minors died this month in Pittsburgh after shots broke out at a house party thrown at a residential unit that was rented on Airbnb. The short-term rental site responded with quick admonishment. The renter who held the party received a lifetime ban from Airbnb, and the company is planning legal action. Roughly 200 people reportedly attended the unauthorized event.

That was just one incident among several other safety issues at Airbnb units in recent months that have affected both renters and hosts.

A mass drug overdose took place at an Airbnb rental outside Fort Lauderdale last month. One person died and another was injured in Sunnyvale, California, last August when gunfire broke out at a party attended by as many as 200 people at an Airbnb that was unregistered with the city, as is required by local law, the Mercury News reported.

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The host of the Pittsburgh listing where the shooting incident unfolded noted parties were not allowed and renters would be charged $500 if there was evidence of any such gathering, an Airbnb spokesperson told TPG. They also told TPG that Airbnb is in close contact with the Pittsburgh Police Department as well as the mayor’s office to support ongoing investigations.

But the narrow scope of Airbnb’s response — focusing primarily on cracking down on renters who throw house parties and on gun violence at rentals — might leave some travelers wanting more information similar to what’s come from other incidents impacting the travel sector.

Uber, for example, responded to criticisms of its safety issues by launching a checkup system on its mobile app with features like “RideCheck,” which the ride-hailing company initiates and relays various safety tools to a rider if a trip goes off course.

Car with an Uber sticker in the windshield in Portland, Oregon
Uber launched a checkup system on its mobile app to address various safety issues. (Photo by Hrach Hovhannisyan / Shutterstock.com)

Both traditional hotel companies as well as vacation rental platforms like Airbnb began rolling out more transparent safety measures when it came to health and hygiene during the early weeks of the pandemic. The biggest drawback to this was hotel companies and Airbnb largely relied more on guest feedback instead of their own corporate teams to verify if an individual property adhered to these pandemic health and safety measures.

Hotels aren’t necessarily more immune to safety issues than Airbnb, save for the fact that it’s likely easier to throw a 200-person party at an entire home booked on Airbnb compared to an average hotel guest room. But hotels do have more on-site safety infrastructure in place such as security guards and front desk staff monitoring who enters a building.

The latest incident in Pittsburgh might have travelers expecting entities like Airbnb to highlight what immediate rights they and their hosts have when concerns of safety or damage arise. But Airbnb isn’t saying much beyond strong words against raucous gatherings.

“Airbnb strictly bans parties, and we condemn the behavior that is alleged to have prompted this criminal gun violence and the tragic loss of life,” an Airbnb spokesperson told TPG.

The spokesperson also noted Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky previously joined a coalition of CEOs calling for more gun control measures. There are other safety checks meant to prevent the kind of violence that has occurred in recent months, too, such as identity verification and background checks before gaining access to Airbnb in the U.S. — both as a host and as a renter — as well as a neighborhood support line for neighbors to report parties and a company safety team to enforce policies.

What exactly this safety team does is a little murky but has been the subject of a Bloomberg report regarding the secrecy of the group.

The company also leverages technology that restricts reservations based on certain risk factors “including reservation attempts for certain local, entire home listings made by guests under the age of 25,” the company stated. Airbnb claims it has blocked thousands of reservations attempts because of this infrastructure.

Airbnb issued a ban on so-called “party houses” and rolled out the technology checks on risky reservations in response to a fatal 2019 incident in Orinda, California. Five people were killed and several more wounded during a shooting that broke out at a Halloween party taking place at an Airbnb rental.

Makarand Mody, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, questioned at the time how the technology could accurately predict if a party would take place.

“Three years later, history has sadly repeated itself,” he told TPG. “So, as far as preventing such incidents is concerned, it really comes down to alert neighbors and citizens to take it upon themselves to report these party houses, which is sad.”

Is it a hotel or a tech company?

Airbnb did not make a representative available for an interview for further comment, but outside experts say the company’s unwillingness to speak much further on the lawsuit and its anti-party stance comes back to its own identity debate.

“Airbnb — like Uber and Lyft [with respect to whether they are cab companies] — from day one, as a legal concept, has always made the argument that they’re not a hotel company. They’re a platform, and when you’re a platform, you can have some requirements that units be clean and so on,” said David Sherwyn, a professor at Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration. “But the more that you start telling the providers of the rooms what to do, it starts to look like it’s now your property that you’re managing. When you move from a platform to managing property, you now go from, ‘I have no liability to liability.’”

To be fair, it isn’t lawless at Airbnb. The company has an extensive terms of service contract that outlines rules for both hosts as well as renters. The company also provides up to $1 million in both liability insurance and damage protection to hosts.

Airbnb provides up to $1 million in both liability insurance and damage protection to hosts. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

As for any kind of official customer “bill of rights,” it’s limited. Customer rights afforded by Airbnb appear to focus more on discrimination and rights of privacy.

But the shooting in Pittsburgh leaves more questions around what a guest or a host is supposed to do in an extreme event.

For its part, Airbnb plans to pursue legal action against the renter at the property where the party occurred. However, a family that was displaced from a neighboring unit due to the incident had booked a downstairs unit via Vrbo and left their unit an hour before shots rang out because the party upstairs was getting so raucous. Guests in that kind of situation might not realize the protections they have from their booking provider.

A Vrbo spokesperson told TPG there are several ways the company works to keep guests safe before, during and after a stay. The company’s Book With Confidence Guarantee includes measures like rebooking assistance if the host cancels at the last minute or if a guest deems a property unsafe.

Airbnb offers a similar measure in its online help center, and reports on Airbnb’s safety team in the past indicate the group has a significant budget to assist renters find alternative accommodation.

Rental platform Sonder appears to offer similar assistance through its My Stays page, while booking platform Hometogo has less clear directions under its own help center, which appears to direct all help requests through a generic email or phone number.

Safety initiatives, when available, are found in smaller links at the bottom of home pages — something the displaced Vrbo-renting family in Pittsburgh appears not to have realized was an option for them with their stay.

“In this situation, the guests that had booked a neighboring property have been refunded in full for their booking as a gesture of goodwill,” a Vrbo spokesperson told TPG. “Additionally, had these guests called into our 24/7 support team about this during their stay, they would have qualified for lodging assistance under our Book With Confidence Guarantee.”

A tough hill to climb

While Airbnb outlined what measures are in place to prevent house parties, it is clear these incidents are still popping up regularly across the U.S.

Some of the largest U.S. cities have already rolled out regulations on short-term rentals following pushback from the hotel industry on everything from taxation to safety. Limits on vacation rentals could be coming soon to the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Don’t rule out additional measures rolling out in other destinations throughout the country, experts say.

Pushback isn’t limited to the U.S., either. Denmark has a national limit on the number of nights a property can be rented out, and Airbnb reports host earning information directly to Danish authorities to hinder tax evasion. France also has a cap on how many nights a host can rent out a residence. Barcelona ramped up regulation late last summer by only permitting entire-unit rentals instead of individual rooms of a shared residence.

“If you ask [about additional safety measures] to Vrbo and Airbnb, they’re going to say, ‘Well, you know, we have that already on our terms and conditions.’ I’ve checked, and Airbnb has 55 pages of terms and conditions of what they call the terms of service,” said Richie Karaburun, a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality. “Who reads that?”

Maybe everyone should since it might have repercussions for anyone staying in a vacation rental who doesn’t have a clear idea of what to do if they don’t feel safe due to their surroundings. It can also cause some renters and hosts to turn to the legal system right away instead of their booking provider.

“What are your rights? Your rights are your rights under the law, and it’s not necessarily a guest bill of rights. The owners of these Airbnb units have to be very careful,” said Brian Boyd, a Nashville-based real estate attorney. “I see liability all over the place, but I also see the protections offered by the civil statutes, the criminal statutes and also insurance companies are available to help offset some of that liability.”

Those interviewed for this story note it is unlikely for a major overhaul to the operations at some of these companies. Manpower alone is hard to come by. It would be an exhaustive game of catch-up if Airbnb were to vet and watch its units more closely. Airbnb had 6 million active listings at the end of 2021, according to an annual filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. When the company last achieved that number prior to the pandemic, a statement at the time noted that was more listings than the world’s six largest hotel companies combined had guest rooms.

“It is going to take [an] enormous amount of time, money and resources,” Karaburun said. “Logistically and financially, this could be huge. That’s why they rely so much on the host.”

In the event of any emergency while staying at a vacation rental, check the fine print on your reservation or just head to the listing provider’s help page. For travelers staying at an Airbnb, you can find safety contact information here. For travelers staying at a Vrbo, the company’s Book With Confidence help center is found here.

Featured image by Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images.

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