The Essential Heartlessness of the Sharing Economy Will Be Revealed Now or Later, Maybe Via Deaths at Airbnb


At Matter, Zak Stone has written an astonishingly sad, lucid and important story that sees all the way around the legitimately complicated issue of who should be held responsible for his father’s death at an unsafe Texas property rented on Airbnb. The first paragraph:

The rope swing looked inviting. Photos of it on Airbnb brought my family to the cottage in Texas. Hanging from a tree as casually as baggy jeans, the swing was the essence of leisure, of Southern hospitality, of escape. When my father decided to give it a try on Thanksgiving morning, the trunk it was tied to broke in half and fell on his head, immediately ending most of his brain activity.

Stone’s family is the first to go public with a story of property-related death at an Airbnb, although they’re not the first to experience it.

Airbnb, founded in 2008 and now valued at an insane $24 billion, is ramping up to an IPO. It, like Uber and the other big “sharing economy” startups, provides such astonishing convenience to the consumer that its deliberate lack of corporate accountability as well as its economically predatory find-and-replace tactics (in Airbnb’s case, the fact that the tariff goes to the company rather than to the public) are easily forgotten. I use Airbnb a lot when I travel, and I guess the ease of booking is so significant that I’ve unwittingly acquiesced to the fact that I could die of carbon monoxide poisoning in my rent-a-room and no one would be responsible.

But some people are fighting back. A loose coalition of community housing advocates (who argue, correctly, that Airbnb inflates a neighborhood’s market value beyond what that neighborhood’s tax base can keep up with) and hospitality industry players (who argue, also correctly, that any decent hotel-like system must come with basic safety regulations) are fighting the company’s normalization of law-flouting rentals in cities across the US. For example, any Airbnb rental for fewer than 30 days in New York City is technically illegal if the host isn’t present: oops!

Airbnb, whose top-down messaging is exceedingly high-minded (“That is the idea at the core of our company: belonging”) has started to show its ass a bit in response to the pushback, as in these callous libertarian-bro (and unresearched) ads in San Francisco, where the company faced organized opposition in the form of Proposition F, which would’ve limited home rentals to 75 days per year and fined the noncompliant.

Proposition F failed, after Airbnb spent $9 million lobbying against it.

However, customer deaths that can be directly linked to the company’s utter resistance to implementing safety reviews and standards is one arena where Airbnb may not be able to continue counting on the Silicon Valley tactic of apologizing rather than asking permission.From Stone:

While reporting this story, I discovered that my father was not the only person to die in an Airbnb. During the 2013 holiday season, a Canadian woman and five of her friends stayed together in Taiwan for a wedding, booking accommodations through Airbnb. On December 30, she was found dead [from carbon monoxide.] Airbnb did acknowledge her death, in their statement to me. But her tragic accident, like my father’s, has been left out of the company’s self-reported narrative about its safety record until now.

The company is able to skirt responsibility by pretending to be a neutral marketplace: like Napster or Twitter, it’s for the most part free from liability for the conduct of its users.

“What [sharing economy startups] need to be in order to minimize liability is as passive a platform as possible,” lawyer Jim Rosenfeld told a Cardozo Law School panel this March. “The more they themselves are providing content and providing services” — like vouching for the safety of a property — “the greater their risk of exposure. The more they’re like a bulletin board or an old-fashioned matchmaking service” — in a word, Craigslist — “… the better off they are.”

But, as Stone points out, the company is happy to get involved when they’re looking at increasing profits rather than expenses. Providing professional photographers to better catalogue listings, for example, quickly doubled revenue in New York. Stone explains, emphasis mine:

Of course, were Airbnb to invest in safety requirements by offering home inspections or by analyzing photo content to target higher-risk properties and features (pools, saunas, trampolines, etc.) with site-specific safety recommendations, such a program could be far more costly, and might jeopardize Airbnb’s covetable neutrality as a platform. The irony is that amateur innkeepers who couldn’t be trusted with the banal task of photographing and marketing their properties are expected to excel at hospitality’s most important rule: keeping guests safe and alive.

It’s taken Stone two years to put this story together as he grieves, and Airbnb’s become ubiquitous: you can only imagine how painful it must be to watch the company continue to refuse regulation that would have saved his father’s life. Read the whole piece here.

Image via Airbnb

Contact the author at [email protected].

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