Asking questions inside Airbnb's SF headquarters

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Airbnb host Lena White wanted help.
Steven T. Jones

As I covered the last week’s Share conference for this week’s Guardian, I finally got the chance to poke around the 888 Brannan Street headquarters of Airbnb, the company I’ve been doggedly reporting on and getting stonewalled by over the last year or so. Alas, CEO Brian Chesky and other Airbnb bigwigs were nowhere to be found at this opening reception for the Share conference, but I did do a few other illuminating interviews.

It’s a big, wide open space dotted with weird little nooks designed to look like homes, connoting the company’s shared housing business model. Attendees noshed on rack of lamb and other gourmet yummies served from the company’s top floor cafeteria overlooking SoMa and the freeway. Several Airbnb employees took plates of food back to their workstations in the open office area with an iMac on every desk.

Over dinner, I chatted up Whitney Vosburgh and Jeff Nelder from Brand New Purposes, a Berkeley business that “builds brand communities,” they say. I was interested to hear what they thought of industry’s branding of the whole “sharing economy” concept, but they don’t really see it as a brand.

“I think the sharing economy is a movement,” Nelder said, using a label that would be repeated many times at the conference by its most fervent proponents.

But c’mon, I said, isn’t this also a concept that these companies have been working diligently to brand into the public consciousness, particularly among political leaders, often as a way to disguise the fact that renting isn’t really sharing?

Actually, Vosburgh said, this movement is tapping into something essential that humans need and aren’t getting these days. The idea of sharing is about building connections to one another at a time when social isolation is growing despite our online connections.

“The greatest threat to civilization is social death,” Vosburgh said. “There’s an old-fashioned longing for connection.”

That’s true, but is the commodifying of that need a healthy thing for society? I told them about my concerns that the hype and business models don’t seem to really match the values that are being espoused. But they seemed enamored of the concept and speaking mostly in its buzzwords.

“There’s the buzz and then there’s the reality,” Vosburgh said. “But if it’s not real, there’s no deal.”

Hmm. I decided to move on, and I soon found myself chatting with Lena White, an Airbnb host from Southern California who did seem real, talking positively about how Airbnb became her new profession, but also expressing concerns about its bottom line behaviors.

“I got a personal invitation from Airbnb and I wanted to see this,” White said of the conference and the company’s posh headquarters, adding that the company invited her because “I make them a lot of money.”

And she makes quite a bit of money herself, now that she hosts hundreds of Airbnb visitors a year in two properties that she owns and two that she rents, enough money to quit her job as a high school teacher in Santa Monica.

While she was still teaching, she would spend her summers off traveling and visiting family from her native Russia, “so our beautiful property on Venice Beach was open the whole summer,” and she began to rent it out through Airbnb. “Even when I rent it for really low, I make more than I made as a teacher.”

So she became a full-time Airbnb host. “We wanted to extend it and make some real income,” she told us. “But there were so many questions. We wanted to come up here to get answers.”

She has questions about taxes and local regulations in the three Southern California cities where she has properties (Venice Beach, Marina del Rey, and Palm Springs). “Me, as a host, I would love to be legal,” she said. “I would rather pay that 14 percent [transient occupancy tax] and be in the system. These properties that I rent, even with that 14 percent, I’ll be fine.”

Her main frustrations aren’t with her local officials, but with Airbnb, which she criticizes for failing to offer guidance or mechanisms for legalizing her hosting activities while at the same time marketing her property in deceptive ways that can cause a backlash from her guests.

For example, she said that Airbnb insisted on sending a professional photographer out to shoot her properties, over her objections, and then had a graphic designer redo her profiles to make them more attractive to guests.

“I couldn’t recognize my own property. The bedroom looks ten times bigger than it is,” White told us, noting that some of her guests have felt tricked. “It puts us in a position where is seems like we’re lying. But we’re not lying.”

She is also critical of the Airbnb website for marketing properties as if they are hotel rooms, without being honest that the guests will be sharing someone’s living space.

“Nowhere on their site does it say ‘sharing economy,’ that you’re going into someone’s home,” White said, acknowledging that the company needs to expand its customer base to make itself attractive to investors. “I know they need to sell us to make money.”

But she said that Wall Street’s values are squeezing out those of the sharing economy.

“That’s what scares me and I don’t want it to go that way,” White said, saying that she has sent the company messages complaining about how it markets itself and properties such as hers, but it’s fallen on deaf ears. “I don’t like it, it’s like a hotel and it takes something out of it. I don’t want to be part of a big corporation.”

At the very least, she thinks that Airbnb needs to come clean in the communities where it operates and to start helping its hosts more. BTW, Airbnb once again refused to respond to my request for comment for this post or my article in this week’s paper.

“They’re using all the best brains and minds to sell us, but they don’t tell us what to do,” White said, saying that she’s found kinship with other hosts at the conference, but not answers from the company. “Nobody knows what to do. But I’m learning it’s not my personal problem, lots of people have it.”