1984 in 2018: Government Data Grabs, Privacy and the US Constitution

One of the big issues for short term rental hosts not only around the nation in the United States, but also around the world, is the issue of privacy, namely the privacy you expect to have when you do business with any particular corporation or entity, or sign up on a website or put an ad on a platform like Airbnb, HomeAway, or Craigslist.

As we’ve seen, more and more cities are passing short term rental regulations, often out of concern either about disruptions to the neighborhood caused by “party houses” (though cities generally already have laws about noise), or about rental units being taken off the market and turned into short term rentals.  After they pass these short term rental laws, they often discover that the laws are difficult to enforce.  This is less the case in small towns and rural areas where people know most of their neighbors, and more the case in larger cities where, when a host puts a listing on an STR (short term rental) platform, but does not include any info in the listing which would help identify which structure it is (eg, they do not have a photo of the front of the house or building), the city, if they want to investigate all short term rentals, would have a difficult time figuring out where all the properties are.

Many of us, myself included, do not really see how it is a problem that the city cannot identify every single short term rental in its jurisdiction.   If any particular listing or property is causing problems in the neighborhood — for instance with noise or parties, bad behavior by guests — don’t you think the neighbors would complain to the city and be able to identify the property?  Of course they would.  So, no city is going to have difficulty enforcing laws on noise or disturbance, or short term rentals, on a property which is bringing problems to a neighborhood.

It’s the rentals which are NOT creating problems in the neighborhood, where the city may have difficulty enforcing its short term rental laws.  But here, it is quite legitimate to ask, even I would say very important to ask — if a particular property is not causing any problems to the neighborhood, why would the city need to be involved? Why are some cities becoming big bullies, obsessed with trying to track down on every single host and ensure that every city ordinance is being obeyed to the jot and tittle of the law?

Big Brother and man running
For surely, one could point out, there are many laws that people are not obeying, in whole or in part, so why are cities so overly focused on this one?  The double standards or hypocrisy about following the law can be perhaps seen in sharpest relief when looking at a city like San Francisco, which is a “sanctuary city”, priding itself on protecting none other than those who have broken federal law and come into the United States illegally.  Given such a stance, one might expect that San Francisco might have a laissez faire attitude towards many other things, as would befit a city which figured so largely into the 1960’s Flower Children culture.  But no, as regards anything to do with housing, the city of San Francisco becomes very controlling, and has now forced Airbnb to essentially partner with the city, and mandate host registration with the city on Airbnb’s own website.  No one can set up an Airbnb listing for short term rentals in San Francisco without going through the process to register with the city.

Many other cities would like to follow suit and coerce Airbnb to partner with them and their law enforcement efforts.  But there are few places where a city’s demands on Airbnb are as extreme as in New York City.  There, the city has set up the ominous-sounding,  Orwellian-sounding “HomeSharing Surveillance Ordinance”, by which it seeks to accomplish a massive, and apparently massively unconstitutional, bald data grab.  Airbnb has now been forced to sue New York City in order to obtain injunctive relief and stop the data grab.  You can also see the Airbnb lawsuit against New York City here:

Airbnb Sues NYC over data grab

The Homesharing Surveillance Ordinance requires homesharing platforms to turn
over an unprecedented amount of intimate personal data about their New York City hosts and whom they invite into their homes each month to a government enforcement agency—the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement—that works shoulder to shoulder with private investigators hired and paid by the hotel lobby. No probable cause, notice, or legal review is contemplated in connection with the bulk collection of this data, and no real restrictions are placed on its use or dissemination. As such, the Ordinance is an unlawful end-run around established restraints on governmental action and violates core constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 12 of the New York Constitution, as well as the
federal Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq

New York City is attempting to force Airbnb to provide it ALL private information on ALL hosts in the city.   The city is even demanding that Airbnb provide it with the bank account information of every host in the entire city!  

the Homesharing Surveillance Ordinance requires that the platform turn
over to the City’s enforcement agency on a monthly basis:

a. the address of the residence;
b. the full legal name, address, telephone number, and email
address of the host;
c. the specific identifiers (name, number, and URL) of both the
home and the host on the homesharing platform;
d. a statement of when and how the residence was occupied;
e. the total number of days the residence was rented;
f. the fees received by the platform; and
g. if the platform collects rent, the amount paid and host bank
account information.

To be sure, governments will justify such bald and overreaching data grab attempts, by stating that these are for a good purpose, the purpose of preserving housing. But the purpose of or motivation behind any violation of constitutional protections is totally irrelevant. There are multitudes of “good purposes” out there, and every day we see violent criminals protected by their constitutional rights, at the cost of public safety and security. The desire to keep rental units from being taken off the market may be a good goal, but like any other government endeavor, this work has to be accomplished legally. Moreover, as statistics demonstrate, New York City’s obsession with short term rentals is illogical: the number of short term rentals in the city amounts to only 0.8% of all housing in the city.

City Council members and other State and City officials claim that this extreme
governmental surveillance is somehow necessary because housing is being taken off the market illegally for use as short-term rentals and thereby driving up housing costs. As of June 1, 2018, however, there are only about 28,000 “entire home” Airbnb listings spread across New York City—approximately 0.8 percent of New York City homes. Moreover, 95% of hosts listing an entire home on Airbnb have only a single home offered—hardly a threat to the City’s housing
stock.

It’s very likely that a number of those units being offered as short term rentals, would NOT be offered as long term standard housing, if they could not be used as short term rentals. Many of these are the principal residence of the host. Even if all of those units would theoretically be returned to the rental market if they were not listed as short term rentals, that would add very little to the total housing stock, and again, does not justify the excessive fixation on this issue.

I want to suggest another possible theme in this story — it seems to be quite possible, that at least in modern times, and at least with matters which are not criminal in nature, city governments may not have previously seen the scale of noncompliance with city ordinances, which we are seeing in many cities with regard to short term rentals. This mass-scale noncompliance, which is more extensive in some cities than others, may be a new phenomenon. Petty bureaucrats in general do not like to see the flaunting of their authority, so the large scale of noncompliance that is occurring in some municipalities, may push their petty-bureaucrat buttons.'Maybe if your buttons weren't so big, Mel, people wouldn't be so inclined to push them!'

Whereas some cities have wisely responded to the short term rental movement by saying “let’s not pass laws that make outlaws out of a majority of those doing short term rentals” others take a less sensible approach, and come out bashing with super-duper enforcement teams, police and firefighters going knocking door to door and demanding entrance to private homes, or assessing mind-boggling excessive fines in the stratosphere, thousands of dollars per day, for breaking short term rental laws.  Miami Beach apparently has the highest fines for doing unpermitted short term rentals: they assess initial fines of $20,000 for a violation  —  they passed a new ordinance in 2016 raising the first violation fine for a resident caught renting short-term to $20,000. Each subsequent fine increases by another $20,000 and can be as high as $100,000.  The city of Miami Beach is now, appropriately, being sued over these appallingly excessive fines.

Image result for US constitution

Our privacy online, and in relationship to companies we do business with, is a theme of increasing importance these days, as the GDPR in Europe has demonstrated, and as we have seen with regard to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Ironically, even a FaceBook smartphone app specifically touted as offering privacy protections to users, was rejectec by Apple when it was discovered that this “privacy app” itself violated users’ privacy!!

I actually do not understand how many things that corporations do online are allowed to be done, as they seem clear privacy violations. For instance, what we call “cookies” (where did such an inappropriate name come from?) — isn’t it clear that “cookies” is simply a bald attempt to spy on those accessing a particular website, which allows those owning that site, to track and see which other websites the user visits? This is out and out spying, and I can’t see how this can be permitted. My browsing history should not be information available to any website that I visit.

I wish more people would appreciate the importance of privacy and our constitutional protections from government intrusion, because without enough value for these protections, there is risk we could lose them. It’s not just the laws of our nation which protect us, but our valuing of those laws.

Image result for the price of liberty is eternal vigilance

Often, I’m actually shocked by how little appreciation some have for their liberty and privacy.  In response to posts about government overreach, for instance, it is not uncommon in a host group to see a host respond, “Well, I’m obeying the law, so I have no reason to be concerned if the government wants all this data.”

I have this image in my mind, of government agents going door to door, demanding to be allowed into private homes “just to look around and see if we find anything”, and our many virtue signalling citizens being completely fine with this massive illegal invasion, saying in reply, “Well, fine, go ahead, this just gives me an opportunity to demonstrate how righteous I am that I have nothing to hide, compared to those hosts over there who I think might be breaking the law!”  Really, the eagerness to demonstrate one’s own virtue seems to be on the verge of becoming just that eager to condemn others, that it would turn a blind eye to loss of fundamental liberties if the maintenance of the show of virtue could be supported thereby.  Image result for virtue signalling images

The lack of concern for violations of the US Constitution is mind-boggling.    It sometimes seems to me that various forms of virtue-signalling and taking pride in how righteous one is, how politically correct, or how obedient one is to whatever current laws are, is blinding people to the threat to liberty taking place in various forms of government overreach.  We live in a society where virtue signalling has become so big, and so important, that it really figures largely into many facets of the Democratic party and its programs.  This is pushing us all to a dangerous failure to be concerned about protecting our freedom and liberty.

As the Supreme Court has recognized, “when it comes to the Fourth Amendment,
the home is first among equals. At the Amendment’s ‘very core’ stands ‘the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (2013) (quoting Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505, 511 (1961)). Indeed, “the overriding respect for the sanctity of the home . . . has been embedded in our traditions
since the origins of the Republic.” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 590 (1980). The Homesharing Surveillance Ordinance is inconsistent with these fundamental principles.

As well, however, the threat to one’s livelihood can unfortunately too easily result in placing more value on self-preservation, than on preserving freedom and liberty in the nation as a whole. It’s become apparent through conversation with hosts in some of the cities where Airbnb has (unwisely, in my view) offered to partner with the city and help the city police its own laws, that some hosts view this lasso-ing of private companies into the law enforcement business, as necessary for their own ability to do business.  They feel that if the city isn’t given what it wants, then their city may ban all short term rentals, which could be ruinous for them.  When I bring up the unconstitutionality or loss of privacy issues to some hosts, they simply say things like “I dont’ see what the issue is if Airbnb gives the city the data.  Hosts are supposed to sign up with the city anyway, so the city would have the information anyway.”  This is like saying it’s pretty much the same thing if border patrol agents catch someone crossing the border illegally, or if the government stops people randomly on the street and asks for their ID, or tells the local school district to give them the names of all suspected illegal immigrants, since “it doesn’t matter how they are caught, they shouldn’t be here anyway.”   The methods that are used to obtain information do matter very much if we are to preserve liberty.  For those who only have their own business interests in mind, liberty and privacy may not mean much.  I am suggesting that we need to take a larger view on things than our own self-interest.

There are several areas where I think hosts should be most diligent to protect their own liberties. One is the type of massive data grab attempt highlighted in the situation in NYC. Another is one that could be missed because it seems much more innocuous. Many cities, when passing short term rental laws, stipulate as part of their regulation, that hosts’ homes will need to be inspected prior to the issuance of an STR permit. As I point out in this article, this inspection issue could be much more complicated and even disastrous for hosts than it would seem on its face. It may not be very common, but it does happen in some municipalities, that once government agents or building inspectors are given access to a private home, they go well beyond their legally circumscribed authority therein. It has happened all too frequently that either a power-hungry rogue building inspector, or an entire city building department with too little concern with citizen’s constitutional rights, will engage in a “fishing expedition” when given access to a private home. Hosts renting one bedroom to a guest in their home, who think the code inspector is there only to look for smoke detectors, and required means of egress in a fire, may be shocked to be handed a fine of $2000 to $5000 for unpermitted work done on a detached garage 30 years before they owned the building. These kinds of things have happened, even to those who may have expected that they were exempt from government abuse because of their level of personal righteousness or excellence in virtue signalling.

For instance, hosts in Portland Oregon were disturbed to find exactly this happening to them, when they applied for an STR permit, and disoovered that building inspectors, once granted access to their home, would just start wandering around, looking for anything they could write up and fine the homeowner on. In Oakland California, in 2011 a Grand Jury was convened to look into allegations of widespread abuse by the city’s building department. The Grand Jury report found “an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation toward property owners” by Oakland inspectors and supervisors,and many abuses by the building department. The Grand Jury outlined the problems at length in this report:

http://www.acgov.org/grandjury/final2010-2011.pdf

Or, you can find the report here:

Oakland Building Department investigated by Grand Jury

Back in NYC:  over the past year, a campaign of harassment of hosts has occurred, where many stories have emerged from New York City hosts, about finding that a troupe of multiple government agents is knocking on their door, ostensibly in response to a “complaint.”  Police, fire department staff and building inspectors have demanded to be permitted into many hosts’ homes (smart hosts have refused to grant them entry) and once inside, they have undergone a fishing expedition, looking for issues to cite the host over.  Hosts have emerged with fines or threats of fines, for things not related to hosting.

Suffice it to say, I recommend that when advocating for STR regulations in their city, hosts should oppose any property inspection requirements, and in general I think property owners should be very hesitant to allow government agents onto their properties. There is too much potential for abuse and bullying, and the property owner is at a great disadvantage. Sometimes cities have no appeal process when building inspectors issue fines (that was the case in Oakland) and it can be prohibitively expensive to try to fight back by suing a city for abuse by the building or any other department.  As well, there is little legitimate reason for a city to do home inspections prior to allowing an owner to do short term rentals.  No such inspections are required in order to do standard long term rentals.  As well, given that AIrbnb very readily refunds guests if they have a complaint about the premises where they are staying, any renter who has a concern about the premises can easily get a refund and find another place to stay.

IN conclusion….let’s watch what happens in Airbnb’s lawsuit with New York City, and hope that a precedent is set which persuades New York and other cities not to engage in these massive data grab attempts, and look for other ways to enforce their laws than in engaging in violations of citizen’s constitutional rights.

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Host Advocacy Groups: Problems and Strategies

I haven’t posted an article on here for some time, sorry about my absence, I’ve been busy with some other projects and other websites.

But some events and situations recently crossed my path, which made me realize there’s a need to address host advocacy groups — meaning, political advocacy groups where hosts organize to promote their own interests in various cities, and sometimes at the county or state level.  What I’ve noticed, over the years, is that two things are true:  (1) hosts would do well to organize to advocate for and promote their own interests, particularly when cities begin to create short term rental regulations and may be proposing regulations which have one or more elements which are not good for some or all hosts.  (2) hosts should be aware of and prepare for the fact that when cities propose and then pass short term rental regulations, this can lead to multiple different types of problems, which hosts would do well to be prepared for.(I outline 9 specific problems I have encountered or heard of from others, at the end of this article)

I have seen this many times, both in terms of what I’ve read about in news articles about host groups, and also in host groups I participate in, where I’ve heard directly from hosts involved about infighting or group breakdown that can occur when hosts who may begin as a unified coalition, discover that really they have different goals or interests, and there can be unpleasant experiences when they divide.  Sometimes, there can be power issues, where different leaders emerge in the host community, each claiming to represent the hosts in their region.

All in all, I think that what we see is that as the pressure of laws and regulations is applied by a a city, county or state government, some hosts realize they could be put out of business, or have a much harder time doing their business.    They will be motivated to fight to preserve their business and their income.  Other hosts, alternatively, may feel like they are not threatened, so they are not motivated to fight in the same way, or at all.
As well, different styles will emerge.  Some hosts will have an idea that they should take a certain approach in their advocacy work, others will disagree and want to take a different approach. This can fracture a group.  Sometimes there will be personality conflicts among leaders, and a group that starts out with 3 leaders can break into 2 camps when one leader takes exception to what the other 2 are doing, and breaks away to form their own group.

In sum, even though ideally we would like to think that “as short term rental hosts, we should be able to unite to advocate for our interests and oppose the anti-Airbnb contingent”, the reality is more complex and more imbued with the difficulties that are innate to human nature.  Animosity

It seems to be almost a truism, that if you take a group that on the surface considers itself monolithic and of people with the same orientation, and apply stress and pressure to that group, you’ll be able to turn members against each other,  as different people respond to the pressure by seeking to preserve their own interests or their own self and perhaps willingly throwing under the bus those whom they view as creating an obstacle to their own security or self-preservation.

I am wanting to make hosts aware of this, so that they can anticipate this when they work to organize and advocate on their own behalf.  Also, knowing this in advance can help hosts better organize in ways that allow them to protect themselves from some of the difficulties that can arise as groups fracture or different coalitions develop.

It is not necessarily a problem that groups will fracture and not all hosts will agree.  This may not happen in all regions, but when it does, I think it’s better to allow different groups to develop than to try to suppress division or dissention.  Ideally, if groups with different goals can feely co-exist, they can at least “agree to disagree” , and by being free to go their own way and mutually tolerating each other, they will do better in being able to unite against and establish a collaborative defense against the anti-Airbnb and anti-short term rental groups which would like to destroy them all.

Here are some of the issues as I have seen them.

First, when a large city begins to propose short term rental regulations, it is common for Airbnb itself to try to organize a host advocacy group in that city.  AIrbnb ostensibly does this to help hosts, but realistically we must understand that Airbnb is organizing hosts to promote its own interests, which are to continue to profit by the maximum number of listings in any given area.  So, although the interests of Airbnb and those of the host community can certainly overlap to a considerable extent, their interests are not identical, and hosts should be smart enough to realize this.
One of the things that will happen, when a large city begins setting up short term rental regulations, is that Airbnb will try to coordinate a host group.  They have the big advantage in doing this, because given the limitations for hosts communicating w/ other hosts directly on the AIrbnb platform, it’s easier for AIrbnb to organize hosts than for hosts to organize w/ each other.  AIrbnb can for instance begin contacting hundreds of hosts in any given city by emailing or phoning them, something any one host or group of hosts cannot do.
AIrbnb then will often send a host advocacy liason to actually run the meetings that hosts attend, and will provide handouts and other materials basically instructing hosts how to advocate for themselves, how to interact w/ city council, etc.  Some of this can be helpful, as some hosts have no idea how to go about this, but it can also be problematic when hosts get overawed by being treated to their own personal Airbnb employee rep, and become overly dependent on this Airbnb representative.  THey can fail to do their own planning and strategizing and fail to come up with their own goals.  Ideally, hosts could insist on taking the reins of their own host advocacy group, while appreciating the support from an Airbnb rep assigned to help them.

Second, there may well be divisions in the host community based on the kinds of regulations proposed.  In many cities, proposed regulations would limit or even prohibit hosts from doing short term rentals on entire place listings which are not their own primary residence.  I have seen this become a very divisive area in the host community.  Hosts who are strictly in-home hosts may. out of fear that their city could prohibit all short term rentals, turn against entire -unit hosts (also often called “non-hosted listings, meaning, a listing where the host is not present during the guests’ stay).  They may , wittingly or unwittingly, feel it is in their best interest to “offer up” such listings and hosts to be sacrificed, so that the “greater good” of in-home hosts can be spared.  Suffice it to say that those hosts who do not do in-home style hosting may be unhappy with this turn of events and feel betrayed or sold out.

There are several issues involved in this struggle around regulations that might more negatively impact some hosts than others.  One issue is that, sometimes quite legitimately, some styles of hosting can be viewed as creating more social problems, for instance the large-scale real estate company “host” with dozens to hundreds of listings, which specializes in turning whole apartments into short term rentals.  This type of hosting is very different from the original vision of Airbnb, that of the small property owner, generally a single homeowner or tenant, who welcomes a guest into a bedroom in their own home.  Obviously though, this is not the only type of hosting that is legitimate, and vacation rentals as such have had a long history particularly in vacation destination areas like Lake Tahoe, Big Bear, or around Yellowstone or Yosemite.  Still, in cities where there is a housing scarcity, it is very common for cities to move to disallow property owners from being able to do short term rentals with entire apartments or homes which are not their primary residence.  In areas where the politics is heatedly opposed to “removal of units from the rental market”, it does not actually make much sense for hosts to advocate for the right to do this kind of short term rental, as there is very little likelihood of making any headway on that issue.

However, in areas of the country where this is not an issue, and where there may be a surplus of housing, things are different, and there it does not make as much sense for anyone to vilify hosts who are professional property managers owning multiple buildings and trying to do short term rentals with them all.
Image result for group conflict

On the other hand, some hosts, struggling and perhaps negatively impacted by the increasing number of people becoming hosts and entering the short term rental market, may become very opposed to “large scale operators” in this business, and take exception to anyone advocating on their behalf.  “They are stealing our business/they are hotels”.  There is some legitimacy to this concern as well.

Still other divisions can occur, for instance, some hosts may find themselves privileged to own a home in top order, where all work ever done on the house was done legally with a permit, so they may feel no qualms about a proposal that cities want to inspect every home prior to issuing the owner a permit to do STR.  Other homeowners may realize that either during their ownership of their home, or before they owned it, there was unpermitted work done, and that this issue might arise during an inspection, even though hypothetically, any work done on the detached garage of a house should have no bearing on the rental of a bedroom in the main structure.  Still, it is not unheard of that a government code inspector, once they gain access to a private home, will go on a “fishing expedition” and just wander all over, looking for anything that they can write up and fine the homeowner over.  Actually, this exact problem was occuring in Portland Oregon, after STR regulations there stipulated that all properties should be inspected to get an STR permit.  The inspectors, once in the homes, were just wandering everywhere and “looking for issues” anywhere, in actions that amounted to illegal search and seizure.

A third issue to be aware of, in organizing to advocate for short term rentals, is to consider the context in which your city/county/state is operating.  What are the political forces involved.  Are there powerful tenant groups, complaining that short term rentals “are taking units off the market”?  Are there angered homeowner residents, upset about too many parties in their neighborhood, or commotion and parking issues?  Note too that even a few problems caused by irresponsible short term rental hosts, can have a very damaging impact on future city STR regulations, as I wrote about here.  An awareness of the context, can help host advocates come to realistic goals.  For instance, in a city where there is a “housing crisis” and rents are increasing, it’s rather unrealistic that the city leaders will take the position that short term rentals can be completely unregulated, done on any number of entire units and throughout multi unit buildings.  To get an idea of the different types of short term rental regulations cities might implement, look at this article which showcases 12 different types of STR regulations.  

STR rules in 10 cities

This article, posted on a site that offers cities help in enforcing their STR laws, has 10 different types of STR regulations.

Rifts between Hosts and their Consequences

In any of the above differences between hosts, including the goals that subgroups of hosts have and their desired outcome in the city ordinances,  a very deep rift can develop between these “camps”.   These rifts, and the animosity involved, are I think directly related to the fact that hosts of various kinds find their very livelihood under threat.  No one likes to find themselves faced with the possibility that they will be put out of business.  Everyone wants to preserve their ability to earn an income, to continue with their business.  So the fear of losing all that, leads to the level of passion and the depth of some of the rifts in the host advocacy groups, when other subgroups of hosts may be perceived  — accurately or inaccurately — as posing a direct threat to one’s livelihood.

These rifts can actually even become worse after the host advocacy work is done and the proposed regulations are passed into law, because then the city is faced with the task of enforcement of the law, and new complexities can then develop — and potential for the city cracking down, changing the law, or even prohibiting short term rentals altogether or drastically curtailing them, based on the issues they have with enforcement.

For instance,  if short term rental regulations are passed, and after passage, the city threatens to “crack down” because of the awareness that a number of hosts are continuing to do short term rentals (STRs) with full units, something that the city may have prohibited.  The hosts who view themselves as righteous people obeying the law may feel no qualms in reporting or snitching on the hosts who they feel are threatening their own livelihood by hosting illegally.  This division between hosts who view themselves as the righteous “legal” hosts and those they view as the problematic “illegal” hosts, can also develop along other lines, not just along the lines of in-home or “hosted” listing vs entire place “non-hosted” listing.  It could be along the lines of the host who, after the regulations pass, dutifully registers and gets a permit or license or goes thru whatever process the city stipulates is required now, in order to legally host, versus the hosts who do not fulfill all these legal requirements.  Snitch on lawbreakers

I have seen a number of posts in various host groups where some hosts who have fulfilled all their local region’s legal requirements for hosting, have nothing but contempt for those who have not done so.  It doesn’t seem to matter to them at all what the reason is for any given host not having fulfilled the legal requirements — whether this be a result of ignorance, being new on the scene, willfully ignoring the law, hosting in a way that isn’t permitted, or having some unique circumstance which makes them a round peg that doesn’t fit into the square holes of the short term rental laws the city has passed.  Doesn’t matter  — for some hosts, their vision is very black and white — if you follow the law you’re good, if not, you’re bad and wrong.  What I find so ironic in this situation, is that a number of those who have this very letter-of-the-law orientation, are people who would steadfastly defend the rights of those they term “undocumented immigrants” to cross the border in the dead of night, to use whatever means they need to use to get a job, to work, to go to school and get a driver’s license, and do many other things that the law actually doesn’t allow them to do as non-citizens.

I would also like to take the opportunity to point out that having a “letter of the law” orientation to life, is actually a less than mature level of psychological development.  The “Spiral Dynamics” view of human development postulates these levels of human development — beige is the lowest, oriented to mere survival, turquoise is the highest, oriented to cosmic spirituality.

In this chart, the letter of the law orientation is the blue level, which as you see is a rather middling level of development.  Yellow is the level of coming to one’s own decisions on moral or ethical issues, above and beyond any earthly authority.  Also, the green level is above the blue — at the green level, one places the value of harmony between people above that of actively seeking to punish people because they are not following a law, a law that may not be a just or fair law, in the long view of things.  Spiral Dynamics chart

Considerations When Forming a Group

When setting up a host advocacy group, consider all the structural elements of the group and ask yourself about the security of all these elements, should the group fracture.  For instance, what methods are you using to organize? Do you have a website? who controls it? Is it someone you can trust, who is not biased towards one side or another of hosting styles? What will happen if that person drops out of the group? will they take the website with them? WHo controls the contact list, the list of hosts in your city and their email and phone number info? You should not trust such a list to one person only.  If that person gets upset or offended, and departs with the whole list, what will you do then? In other words, when organizing a group, be very attentive to who has what power, who controls what, and ask yourself what would happen if the person controlling XY or Z ran away with that power and refused to cooperate with the group any more.  What I have seen is too many people who are too naive about human nature, and end up shocked and surprised when there are power issues in their group.

What happens if there are, for instance, 3 leaders of your host advocacy group, and then one of those 3 turns against the other two, and says to the hosts, come over to my group, those other two are not acting in your interest.?

Homes not hotels

I suggest that it’s better to allow dissent and allow groups to fracture and develop subgroups, thus allowing those who want to control their own group or have their own power to have that ability and that satisfaction, and hope that by allowing this, rather than trying to forcibly stop such things, all host advocacy groups have a better chance of existing separately yet being able at least to loosely unite to fight the anti-Airbnb forces.

Finally, when organizing hosts to advocate for your own interests, and speaking up in city council meetings, writing to city councilmembers, meeting with them, etc, I suggest that hosts avoid using their real full name when possible.  Given the amount of anti-Airbnb hysteria out in the world, as well as the fact that if you write to city council, your letter often is considered part of “public record” and then your email and name get put on permanent public record, I think it’s best to take care to protect yourself.  For the most part, cities do not retaliate against those who speak out for hosting, but not always.  New York City retaliated against one host who spoke in his own interest, and he’s now having to sue the city over this.  See this Bloomberg article for more info on that.

Also, the amount of bullying of people just for having an opinion that others don’t like, has increased.  The rise of identity politics has exacerbated this problem.  (By the way , here’s an interesting video on identity politics which demonstrates this problem )  Things are crazier out there these days.  Should you stick your neck out as an Airbnb host, particularly if you speak up in city council and say something that they dont’ like, someone may decide that they have it in for you, and then try to find ways to harm you.  If they know your name, they can find out where you live and go from there.  So I suggest, do not use your real full name when speaking to the city.  In some areas, such as in California, residents have the right (the Brown Act) to NOT provide information about themselves when speaking in a city meeting.  I encourage everyone to take advantage of such rights and protect yourselves.

Concrete Examples: Nine Problems I Have seen in Host Advocacy Organizing

Here are some actual concrete examples –taken from real life situations I have heard of — of how things can go wrong when hosts start organizing.  I will highlight, in these examples, both the PROBLEM that occurred, and the SOLUTION in terms of suggestions for things that might be done to prevent this.

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(1) PROBLEM:  The city begins to put out proposed short term rental ordinance, so hosts start organizing.  They plan a meeting, and two host leaders are to lead the meeting.  An AIrbnb representative is also going to attend.  When the meeting begins, the AIrbnb representative after introducing himself, does not cede to the host leaders, but starts to take over the meeting and run the meeting.
SOLUTION: Be aware of the fact that AIrbnb is going to try to organize and coordinate host advocacy groups in large cities especially.  Be aware and prepared for the fact that they may try to take over meetings.  Talk with their rep in advance to prevent this from happening. Work on a collaborative approach to organizing.

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(2) PROBLEM:  As hosts in a certain city organize, they simply ask for volunteers on who will do what task in setting up their organization, without giving much thought to who is assigned to what task, and what power each person has in those positions.  One host volunteers to set up a website which will be used for the group, saying she has website building skills.  This website is then advertised all over town as the portal through which to contact the host organization and sign up and keep up to date with developments.  Then, just as the group is getting large and well populated, the host who volunteered to set up the website doesn’t like where the host advocacy group is going, and decides she no longer wants to participate in it.  She takes her website with her (which she’s paid for and owns) and now the group is stuck — they not only no longer have a website, but anyone who tries to get in touch with them is going to the website which is now defunct.
SOLUTION:  Be very attentive to who has what power in any organization you create, and consider what would happen if this person pulls out of the group.  Make sure that any website used by the group has at least two administrators, people who can be trusted.  Determine if their own style of hosting or political views are consistent with them being viable in the long term.     Consider using a Facebook group or Google group for your organization, as opposed to a privately owned website, since with FaceBook groups for instance,  all admins can be said to equally “own” it and no one has paid for it.

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(3) PROBLEM:  Local news media, which thrive on anti-Airbnb stories, hearing that a certain city is creating short term rental laws, and eager to thrive on the controversy involved in STRs, publish stories which attack certain hosts, perhaps “commerical” or large scale hosts.  This creates a public backlash against those hosts, making them — in the eyes of the anti-AIrbnb crowd — veritable symbols of “all that is wrong with AIrbnb” and “The reason housing costs are going up.”  In other words, making them easy scapegoats for a boatload of social problems.  At this point, it no longer is politically viable to support such people, and any host organization with such hosts figuring prominently into its leadership, will be defamed thereby.  I know of such a case, and the vilified hosts ended up being such “hot potatoes” that no one in the host advocacy group could even mention their names or advocate for them in any way, they were so thoroughly viewed as “bad actors”, which was actually false.  Because in this case at least, they had always followed the law as they understood it.
SOLUTION:  Be cautious of who are chosen as leaders.  Airbnb is wise to try to cherry pick hosts that it showcases, as those who are most politically acceptable.  Host organizations need to do likewise. Host advocacy groups mostly should not have large scale commerical hosts as spokespersons, if their area has any housing issues, because that can backfire.  Select hosts who are in-home hosts as leaders, if possible, as these are most politically acceptable.  Also, those who do large-scale or multi-unit hosting need to be aware of the political reality in many cities in the US, which is that, even though this isn’t fair, such hosts are not viewed favorably by many.Lazy emoji

(4) PROBLEM:  HOsts organize for advocacy, but some hosts have little ability or interest in doing their own homework or following the news on their own.  Also, some hosts are clueless as to the purpose being undertaken.  So they come to nearly every meeting expecting leaders to spend time personally giving them updates about every development in the proposed STR rules, or worse, expecting others to give them tips on how to host.  This nappened to me, when helping organize for my area, I found that it was difficult to focus all hosts on the point of the meeting.  It may have actually been a drawback for me that I’m a very organized, focused person (see #5 below).  I found it annoying how often the group would go on tangents and start talking about things not related to the issue at hand, and annoying when I was expected to provide updates and spoon feed some members.  Others may have more tolerance for this than I did.
SOLUTION:  WHen creating a website or online group for your host advocacy group, post easily findable links to updates on local proposed ordinances, results of city council meetings, etc.  Then you can point hosts there who want to know what’s going on.  Draw boundary lines and make clear the purpose of meetings, and try to work time into meetings so that there is time for socializing, which hosts like to do.  In the main meeting, if you’re a focused person, don’t allow people to go on tangents and start into long discussions about the bad guest I just had or where to buy the best sheets.  Stay on point.  Either have the social part of the meeting afterward, or organize social meetings separately where folks can talk about other topics.  If you’re not too concerned about focus, it might actually be easier for you to run the meetings, which could be a process of discussion, then group herding, then more discussion, then some tangent, then herding again.Busy bee bustling

(5) PROBLEM:  The city announces it will propose STR regulations, so hosts in that city want to start organizing.  But the problem is, all hosts are busy, no one has time to help, much less take a leadership role, everyone expects someone else (eg, Airbnb) to do all the work.  A few hosts understand the importance of advocacy, but trying to get others to help or go to meetings, is like pulling teeth.  It’s very difficult and even painful to do.  A couple host leaders may spend hours collaborating with Airbnb, contacting fellow hosts in their city, and then meeting with hosts who just say that they dont’ have time to help.  The few hosts who are involved trying to organize this effort are left with a dilemma: either they alone do all the work that is needed, or no one will do any organizing, and/or it may be Airbnb itself which is left to organize the whole host advocacy campaign.

Several different problems can result from these dilemmas.  One is that leaving Airbnb alone to organize everything, can result in hosts not being able to actively direct the advocacy in directions they feel are best for them.  Another is that if anti-Airbnb folks or the media find out that the campaign is being organized by Airbnb and not by hosts, they will exploit this to vilify short term rental hosting as a corporate phenomenon.  Another dilemma, which I also experienced, is that when there are very few people willing to take on any leadership role, then sometimes those who see the importance of organizing hosts are left to do work that they arent’ suited for.  I am actually not well suited to do any political organizing or boots-on-the-ground advocacy.  I am NOT an outgoing person, and I am easily annoyed by and can get snippy with those who are not quick-on-the-uptake.  I am not the best choice for meeting leader.  What I can do well is write, create websites, help with mailing lists, and other behind the scenes work.  But due to the dearth of leadership, I felt forced to help with things I was not skilled for, due to the fact that there was no one else at all willing to step up.  This misfit between host and group role can have a deleterious effect on an organization.
SOLUTION:  Airbnb can help with host advocacy in some critical ways, such as by making cold calls to hosts to ask them to help out, or convince them that help and/or leadership among hosts is needed.  This help is not available in all cities, but where it is it can be valuable.  Hosts should avoid doing any tasks they have no interest in, but at the same time, realize that if no one else is willing to do the work, the results could be worse than just having a person who ill fits the role.

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(6) PROBLEM:  One or more hosts don’t like the leaders of the host advocacy group, or dont’ like the strategies being used, or something else.  They have strong views of their own.  So rather than just drop out, they lobby hosts in the host advocacy group to view them as its real leaders, and they start pushing to re-create the group under their leadership.  This divides the group. Some hosts like the original leaders, some prefer these new leaders.  This break risks undermining the strength of the coalition. A case that I observed, involved a team of 3 leaders, and one of those 3 became upset when she learned that the way host contact lists had been handled, did not involve what she regarded as sufficient privacy protections, in particular, regarding the difference between using “CC” and “Bcc” on emails.  The former allows everyone emailed to see the email addresses of everyone else, the latter hides those addresses.  When this occurred, this 3rd leader began to pull away from the other two and build her own host outreach with a separate email address that she did not give the 1st two leaders access to. This did not turn out to be a big problem in the end, but it is just an example of an issue that has the potential to fracture a group.
SOLUTION:   Host leaders should be open to criticism and compromise, in order to maintain the good of the whole group.   Many issues can be resolved just by accepting critiques in good faith.  Should serious differences of view emerge, this may be one of the more difficult issues to solve, but I recommend beginning by trying to mediate and reach an agreement about how everyone can still work together.  This may require that current leaders step back, cede power, take different roles in the group, etc, all for the good of the whole.  If this is not possible, then talk about how things can be done with two groups.  Try to negotiate to make it clear and mutually understood that there is strength in numbers.  Be aware of your own attachment to role and power, and also, how your views are colored by the threats to your livelihood that you are experiencing.

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(7) PROBLEM:  The process of working with the city on proposed regulations is very time consuming, demanding, draining.  It is very often a long drawn-out process, taking not only months but sometimes years.  It can involve not only city council meetings, but also planning commission meetings, or housing or other subcommittee meetings.  In order to effectively lead a host advocacy campaign, this is a heck of a lot of work for any handful of host leaders to do.  City council and other city agency meetings can be quite long (4 to 5 hours is typical in my area) and you dont’ necessarily know when your issue will come up in the agenda.  You may have to sit through a lot of other boring issues.  Meetings can go on late…in my area it’s typical for a city council meeting to go on past 11pm, even to midnight at times. The forward momentum, progress from one meeting to the next, can be so incremental and negligible that it is hard to keep up one’s motivation unless one is attentive to the impact of small changes.  Who has patience or time for this? It was not uncommon for Airbnb and host leaders in my area to put in time calling on hosts in the city to attend the meeting and plan to speak, but after coming to the meeting and sitting for 3 hours, some of them would give up and leave, they were bored out of their minds.  Host leaders can easily get burned out after months of attending long meetings and seeing little to show for it, or finding that their work isn’t appreciated by others because the city isn’t going in the direction that hosts have wanted.
SOLUTION:  At least in cities where an Airbnb rep is involved, it can be very helpful for that rep to attend all city meetings, since they are paid to do this as part of their job.  They will not speak or be involved with the city, but they can help the host organization by taking notes and conveying to the host leaders what occurred, if the host leaders cannot make all or part of the meeting.  Sometimes, the Airbnb rep can even send text notifications to other hosts to let them know expected time when the issue is to come up, so that the hosts don’t have to all sit through hours waiting, but can just plan to come a few minutes before the issue comes up on the agenda.  OR, if there is no Airbnb rep, one or two host leaders can do this, or take turns attending meetings, so that the whole burden doesn’t fall on any one host.  In order for this to be productive, those attending meetings need to be sufficiently aware of issues at hand that they can interpret the meaning of any incremental action the council takes.

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(8) PROBLEM:  AFter short term rental regulations are passed, the city finds that it is difficult to enforce them.  The city may find that many hosts are violating the law or doing illegal short term rentals.  The city then threatens to make their STR rules more restrictive, or ban all short term rentals, if they can’t get control of the illegal rentals.  This begins to pit hosts against each other: those who are hosting in accordance with the law, are angered by those who are not, who they view as threatening their livelihoods:  “If those people would just stop what they are doing, stop hosting illegally, the city would not be threatening to ban all STRs, which could put me out of business.”  At this point, some hosts will actually go out of their way to report illegal operators, believing that by doing so, they are potentially saving their own neck.   Other hosts will support methods of enforcement of dubious constitutionality or legality, simply because they feel that allowing the city to get what it wants, will protect them from the city’s potential wrath.
SOLUTION:  This is one of the most difficult and thorny of issues.  I believe though that cities do not need to be able to enforce their laws 100% in order to remove the worst of the bad actors from the stage.  It’s often been in the news that one city or another has “cracked down” on a particularly bad actor and done a sting operation and fined them and shut them down.  This is quite do-able, without any help from other hosts or from AIrbnb.  However, if the city  is over-focused on having total control and not allowing anyone to violate a jot or tittle of the law, I think that attitude is the problem, not the hundreds or thousands of hosts whose business might not be 100% in compliance with some aspect of the law, but who are not harming anyone.  I think it would help hosts to try to have perspective on what are the real problems.  And if the real problem is that the city is acting like a big bully, then hosts going out on a limb and feeding the bully by actively seekiing out anyone violating any part of the law, is not really helping.  Those who engage in ethically dubious behaviors just to save their own necks, may discover that the bully can never be sufficiently fed.  Furthermore, it’s a whole separate probelm issue (which I address in another blog article here ) when a city begins to attempt to violate hosts’ or citizen’s privacy, or engage in illegal or unconstitutional methods, in order to enforce laws that quite likely should not have been passed in the first place.

Finally, hosts who become obsessed with rooting out those who aren’t following the law in some trivial respect, can become bitter people, such as those who go onto host groups and scold other hosts for “not hosting in the right way.”  It’s better to advocate for hosting and one’s own business in positive ways and with ethically upright methods, than to seek to do so by throwing others under the bus.Socialist emoji cropped

(9) PROBLEM:  Hosts are desperate to be permitted to continue hosting, so they are grateful for the city’s proposed regulations, which ostensibly allow them to do so. They don’t think enough about the reuqirement that the city inspect all properties prior to giving a host a permit to do STR.  Now, the city is coming around and when they inspect a property, they dont’ look for the items on the list of requirements for STR hosting, but start wandering around the whole house, looking at remodels that were done decades ago.  They fine hosts for any random thing they find that is unpermitted or out of compliance with any random building code.
SOLUTION:  Try to keep home inspection out of the requirements to do STR.  If such inspections are required, express concern in city council meetings that you know of cases (you could mention Portland OR as a case in point) where these inspections got out of hand and the inspections turned into fishing expeditions.  Demand that the city tell you how they will ensure that this will not occur.  Have them put it in writing.  Get a promise of avenues available for recourse should the promise to avoid abuse in building inspection be broken.  See this article for some real-world examples of building inspectors/departments which go rogue and start engaging in illegal behavior with impunity.

So that’s a summary of a few real-world problems I’ve seen in the hosting community.