U.S. senators call for probe of Airbnb, other home-sharing platforms

Just what effect is Airbnb having on the country’s housing market? Washington wants answers.

A group of U.S. senators is calling for a federal probe into rental activity on home-sharing platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway. In a Wednesday letter to the Federal Trade Commission, the senators asked the agency to find out how much of the short-term rental market is dominated by commercial landlords — a use of the platforms Airbnb says it does not condone, and that activists say is exacerbating San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis.

“On one hand, these firms have sparked innovation, increased competition, and have provided new means by which our constituents can earn extra income,” the senators wrote. “On the other hand, we are concerned that short-term rentals may be exacerbating housing shortages and driving up the cost of housing in our communities.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

The senators also expressed concerns about reports of racial discrimination on home-sharing platforms.

Airbnb has faced attacks from across the country over all of these issues. A study backed by the hotel industry earlier this year claimed commercial Airbnb landlords are making millions by turning their properties into illegal hotels. The New York Attorney General recently found commercial landlords generated 37 percent of the revenue made on the Airbnb platform in New York City. And in San Francisco, a city report in April found close to 80 percent of Airbnb landlords aren’t complying with San Francisco’s short-term rental law.

This all come amid wide-spread accusations that racial discrimination is prompting some Airbnb hosts to decline prospective guests. On Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky apologized for the issue and admitted his team never considered the possibility of racism when designing the platform.

With so much controversy swirling around the home-sharing industry, the senators say Congress and state and local lawmakers need more information as they try to regulate these platforms.

“Unfortunately,” the wrote, “the platform companies, which are the best positioned to provide this type of information, seem reluctant to do so. And even if platform companies do share their data, concerns have been raised about the reliability of this data.”

Photo: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks with reporters after a closed-door briefing by intelligence agencies on the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)


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