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Airbnb fights its "celebration home downside"

Located in Incline Village, Nevada, north of Lake Tahoe, the luxury cabin has a hot tub, sauna, pool table, fire pit, two patios, and a yard full of towering pine trees. It sleeps 14, according to its listing on Airbnb. And it was a nightmare for Sara Schmitz, a pensioner who lives next door.

The house is often the venue for bachelorette parties and weddings, said Ms. Schmitz. Recently a crew of college students stayed there puffing weed smoke into their home. When she asked them to stop, they threw garbage in their yard.

"It's a permanent party house," said Ms. Schmitz, 57. She has called the police a dozen times about the property and has joined the Incline Village STR Advisory Group, an organization that fights short-term rents – for which it is the largest source Airbnb.

What Ms. Schmitz encountered is part of the "party house problem" that Airbnb is facing. This is the case when guests who book their accommodations have parties, which appears to be more common with the coronavirus pandemic as people look for places to socialize with closed bars and hotels that seem risky. In July, the New Jersey police broke up a party at an Airbnb with more than 700 people in attendance.

The party houses pose a risk to Airbnb's reputation and business as the $ 18 billion company prepares to go public this year. In many parts of the city, people were turned off by the noise and nuisance from the landlords. According to Host Compliance, which offers local neighborhood hotlines in the US and Canada, complaints about party houses in locations like Airbnb and Vrbo rose 250 percent between July and September year over year.

Worse, the party houses pose security problems. Between March and October, at least 27 shootings were linked to Airbnb rentals in the US and Canada. This emerges from a number of local news reports from Jessica Black, an activist fighting short-term rentals. The balance sheet was reviewed by the New York Times.

Over the years, Airbnb employees have pushed executives to do more for the party houses, said six people who worked on security at the company. But they said the startup largely prioritized growth until a fatal shoot at an Airbnb hit nationwide headlines last Halloween. Five people died.

The problems now fuel Airbnb's many battles with communities over home rental regulation. Groups like the one at Incline Village are getting louder and louder sharing their strategies to tackle short-term rentals. Cities like Chicago, San Diego, Ann Arbor, and Atlanta recently proposed or enacted stricter rules or bans on the real estate.

"Airbnb's long-term viability and profitability will be a big question mark," said Karen Xie, a professor at the University of Denver who studies the short-term rental industry if the party issue is not resolved.

Christopher Nulty, an Airbnb spokesman, said the company is battling the party houses with "robust new policies, products and technology to stop large gatherings that go way beyond measures taken by others." He said Airbnb made changes despite the moves "knowingly affecting growth and nights booked."

Airbnb began about the same time it was preparing to file an IPO to introduce new rules against party houses. In July, it was said that guests under the age of 25 with fewer than three positive reviews on the website could not book entire houses near their home. In August, the same month that public listing was requested, reservations, banned parties and sued guests responsible for the events were limited to 16 people.

Technology testing began last month to block suspicious last-minute bookings and some party houses have been banned from their offers. And before Halloween – the one year anniversary of filming at Airbnb in Orinda, California – one night rental was banned on Halloween.

Some said the measures were too late.

"The damage was really being done to the neighborhoods during that time," said Austin Mao, an Airbnb host in Las Vegas. He said the cost of repairing damage from parties in his homes, which host up to 2,000 guests a month, has been enormous. The neighbors complained so much about parties in the summer that he converted a third of the offers into long-term rentals.

In 2016, Christopher Thorpe, an entrepreneur in Lincoln, Massachusetts, said he received $ 28,000 in damages after an Airbnb guest hosted an 80-person ticket sales rave at his home. Mr Thorpe later learned that other hosts had reported this guest for parties, but Airbnb had not removed the tenant from the platform.

"Airbnb put as many roadblocks as possible to avoid this," Thorpe said.

Airbnb has long grappled with security issues, said the six former employees who worked on trust and security and asked to remain anonymous.

Two of them said they had asked Airbnb to sue people who frequently threw parties over the damage to the rental apartments, but executives feared it would draw attention to the events. Some also said they urged to restrict or remove the "Instant Booking" option, which confirms bookings instantly without the need for host approval. However, the function, which was used by almost 70 percent of the offers in 2019, increased convenience and made Airbnb more competitive compared to hotels. So Airbnb didn't do anything, they said.

Mr Nulty said Airbnb was promoting Instant Book so hosts could not discriminate against guests by denying some of them a booking, adding that hosts could turn the feature off. He denied executives were asked to sue party promoters, saying the legal team did not reject proposals because of concerns about public attention.

In Incline Village with around 9,000 inhabitants, the Airbnb party houses have increasingly affected the residents. Shortly after Joe and Edie Farrell, retired physical therapists, moved permanently to their vacation home last year, the house next door became an Airbnb. Blowing music and drunk people caused "10 days of fear," said Ms. Farrell, 70, around July 4th.

"Airbnb is basically helping people set up a hotel in our neighborhood," said 68-year-old Farrell. "Now you have to worry about your safety and tranquility."

Then last year came the fatal shooting at the Airbnb in Orinda. A vice news article describing Airbnb's fraudulent listings and fake host accounts also went viral, raising questions about trust.

In response, Airbnb said it would ban professional organizer parties advertised on social media. It also said it would check that all seven million of its entries were as advertised by December 15, 2020, and announced a global hotline for neighbors to report parties. And she promoted her political leader, Margaret Richardson, to the position of Vice President of the Trust. (She has since left.)

But when the pandemic broke out in March, executives made an effort to keep the company alive. Review blocked. (According to Airbnb, 40 percent of the entries “started the verification process”.) The neighborhood hotline, which should be available worldwide, is only available in the US, Canada and the Netherlands.

In May, Airbnb cut a quarter of its employees, including a large part of its security team. In an internal interview with Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, employees protested the layoffs. One said the decision would leave guests unassisted for weeks, according to a list of questions asked by The Times. Another wrote that the lack of a security plan made him feel unsafe about staying at an Airbnb or renting his home on the premises.

In the first week after the layoffs, security incidents piled up, former employees said. Airbnb urged many of those laid off to temporarily return to handle the cases. Many of these workers have stayed since then, current and former employees said. In Dublin, the dismissal plans have been lifted altogether. According to Airbnb, the team that manages user security is now the size it was before layoffs.

In August, Airbnb made other changes to improve security. It sued a guest who was throwing a party in Sacramento and three people were shot dead. It then sued another guest who was hosting a party in Cincinnati that resulted in a property manager being shot in the back while trying to call off the event.

On October 19, the company sued Davante Bell, a party promoter in Los Angeles who hosted parties in Airbnb mansions. "Airbnb has suffered reputational damage and potential liability to third parties as a direct result of Bell's actions, and continues to suffer," the company's lawsuit said.

Mr Bell, who refused to comment on Airbnb's suit, sold tickets on social media to a new party called the Nightmare on King Bell Street Halloween Mansion Party. He continued to post leaflets for the event this week. When asked if the party would be held at an Airbnb, Mr Bell didn't answer.

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