Airbnb Hides Warning That Users Are Breaking the Law In the Fine Print [Update]

I made five fake Airbnb listings this week in order to test whether Airbnb adequately warns hosts that they might be breaking the law. All five times, the only heads up I got that I might be doing something illegal was a single line buried in a easy-peasy posting process that can be done in a minute or less.

Airbnb says hosts should get a automatic "pop-up" discussing local laws during the listing process, but it never once popped up for me.

This was true when I listed both entire apartments and private rooms within an apartment in San Francisco and New York. In New York, state law prohibits rents from subletting their home for less than 30 days without the host present. In San Francisco, rental units of less than 30 days are banned unless the host has a "conditional use permit," whether the host owns or rents.

I made three of the listings this afternoon to see if the warning got more noticeable after Airbnb changed their terms of service on Tuesday night, but I had the same experience. The TOS change was supposed to more clearly warn hosts that "many cities have laws restricting short-term paying guests."

My very statistically insignificant experience might not be representative. But it was real enough that I got two requests to rent my room, despite the fact that the description only said "test" and the interior photo was a screenshot of the Airbnb website.

The aforementioned pop-up box did appear when I clicked the little, easy to miss line saying: "It's important to understand and follow your local laws." Even the pop-up, as you can see, does not point users toward any resources to help them understand local laws, it just tells hosts that they should know how local laws work.

Airbnb Hides Warning That Users Are Breaking the Law In the Fine Print [Update]

Airbnb Hides Warning That Users Are Breaking the Law In the Fine Print [Update]

Two of the listings were made on Monday, after the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about hosts getting evicted from their homes without being aware of the legal risks. Joe Tobener, a tenants attorney, told the Chronicle that Airbnb-related eviction notices have reached "epidemic levels" and that taking your landlord to trial can cost around $15,000. Feel free to adjust his statements for hyperbole.

But one particular comment stood out:

"It's not like these people are scofflaws," he said. "They thought it was OK to rent out on Airbnb because the company didn't tell them otherwise. Airbnb should be defending these tenants, or they should disclose to every person who rents in San Francisco that (short-term rentals are illegal) and tenants are being evicted."

Tobener currently represents Jeffrey Katz, a special-ed teacher who helps pay his bills by renting out the living room of his San Francisco apartment. Last week, the Chronicle reported, Katz got an eviction notice from his landlord.

Katz contacted Airbnb, which "didn't seem quite interested." He requested help from tenants' activists, but "they made it abundantly clear that they dislike Airbnb," Katz said. "Even though I'm not taking rental stock off the market, they were less than sympathetic to my plight."

In a statement to Valleywag, Airbnb said:

"Countless San Franciscans have been able to pay their bills and stay in the city thanks to Airbnb. People who occasionally share the home in which they live aren't hurting anyone and landlords who seek any excuse to evict tenants so they can raise the rent are only helping themselves."

Katz certainly doesn't sound like he was hurting anyone. But Airbnb's coy warnings are hurting hosts like Katz, who turn over 6 to 12 percent to the company which was recently valued at $10 billion.

Airbnb has other resources for hosts on the site, like this page on "Responsible Hosting" that includes links related to San Francisco laws. But I didn't see it as I sped through the startup's seamless interface.

Both Skift and Seattlepi.com broke down other changes in the TOS, including giving "a heads-up that paying hotel taxes — something the company has said it will do in San Francisco by summer — is coming soon."

Update: When I asked Airbnb on Monday about how the company discloses risks, communications representative Nick Papas told me that a pop-up box reminded hosts to check their local laws. Thursday afternoon, before publishing this post, I informed Papas that in five test runs it never popped up for me. He was aware that I was going to publish that fact; we exchanged emails about the post.

Thursday evening, after the post was published, Papas called me and said he was mistaken: the text box reminding hosts to check "Your Local Laws," was NOT supposed to automatically appear. Rather, it was accessible where I found it. If that's the case, Airbnb's warning is even more obscured. I only noticed that line because I was wondering why the information never showed up.

Hey Nitasha —

Good talking this evening.

My description was imprecise. As you noted, this information is embedded in the flow.

All the best,
Nick

To contact the author of this post, please email nitasha@gawker.com.