Airbnb is a great idea — until some people take things too far

By Tony Peyser           

Whenever I have a new column to write, I initially fortify myself with a triple espresso from Starbucks. Once rendered fully alert, I focus on the task at hand.

One of the most memorable phrases from childhood is one I’m sure you recall: “spoiling it for the rest of the class.” No matter how modern modern life becomes, this saying always manages to stay current.

Exhibit A is Kickstarter. What a cool thing: Folks online pool their modest resources and watch them collectively become a substantial sum that brings innovative new ideas to life. My favorite Kickstarter success story is funding for “Reading Rainbow,” the classic PBS TV show about books starring LeVar Burton that will now have a long-awaited second chance to reach millions of young readers.

So, who spoiled crowdfunding for the rest of the class? For openers, Zach Braff. The wealthy “Scrubs” TV actor cashed in big time in 2004 with “Garden State.” Nine years later, Braff decided he was such an auteur that he didn’t want studio interference on his next outing as a writer-director-actor, “Wish I Was Here.” Hello, Kickstarter. No small amount of keyboard commandos weighed in negatively on this and the backlash didn’t abate when a defensive Braff admitted he was tossing some of his own money into the kitty as well. The final insult to injury is Braff’s movie turned out to be not in any way worth watching, even for the most undiscriminating viewers on cable.

(Not that you asked, but here at my local Starbucks I’m switching from jolting espresso to comforting cappuccino.)

Anyway, this brings us to Airbnb, the emblematic 21st-century company that allows people to rent the places where they live to tourists in their area. This company is doing to hotels what Uber has done to taxis: a now familiar app-based, end-around traditional business models.

A small digression about Uber: When Facebook-era companies take off, they often seem to be run by people who feel existing rules do not apply to them. Uber has been slammed in the media recently for some of its drivers not wanting to
drive people with physical disabilities. Or, when they do, some of these drivers have reportedly been astonishingly rude to these passengers. Perhaps what underlies such situations is Uber’s publicly stated core belief that they’re not a transportation company, they’re a technology company, and this makes them exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Charming, eh? No wonder these empires are as skilled at creating ill will as they are at making obscene amounts of money.

I’ve seen Airbnb ads lately on “Inside Amy Schumer,” which gives a sense of how big they now are and how strategic they’ve become at targeting hip, young consumers. Oddly enough, in Santa Monica, the people benefitting the most from renting out their homes are seniors looking for ways to bolster their modest incomes.

So, who’s spoiling it for the rest of the class locally regarding Airbnb? That would be people (OK, businesses) who are basically changing rental housing into hotel rooms, driving up rents and reducing the amount of available local housing. A recent ordinance in Santa Monica drastically cuts back on situations in which landlords were taking apartments off the usual housing market in order to rent them out full-time to vacationers. This is good news for people looking to rent (not rent out), but bad for the aforementioned seniors trying to make ends meet. It’s unfortunate that some type of differentiation can’t be made in these kinds of rentals between needy renters and greedy landlords.

These aren’t the only complications that have emerged from Airbnb. Controversies in recent years have included some guests not wanting to leave and rightful tenants having to sue to evict them. Some other guests have broken things, stolen things and also done unlawful things, i.e. renting out their rental for orgies. Airbnb also has a reputation for not being very helpful regarding damage to rentals. This kind of callousness suggests that if some of the executives over there ever want to switch jobs, they’d fit right in at Uber.

In related news, did you notice those earlier references to Starbucks? Airbnb has inspired me to see if they’d be interested in renting out some space in my column. A little extra money never hurts. Hell, I’d even sell out for a few gift cards. If Starbucks doesn’t reach out, I’ll just consider this a poorly thought out idea and a sad compromise of my journalistic integrity. I’ll apologize profusely and rectify this error by contacting Peet’s.