By Peter Lawrence Kane
*Update*: Yesterday, Airbnb expanded its hotel tax collection in San Francisco. This story was written before this announcement was officially made.
Airbnb has announced a new project on Medium called Shared City, a partnership program in which the company pays any lodging taxes its hosts might be incurring and ignoring. The first Shared City is Portland, where short-term rentals constitute a black market right now.
It was a little unfortunate that last week also saw the release of the Generic Brand Video, in light of which Shared City looks like a paint-by-numbers parody of feel-good, micro-entrepreneurial New New Urbanism. It’s kind of like “This Is a Trent Reznor Song” for internet-based philanthropy, with lyrics that are squishy pieties: “We celebrate the cultural heritage of cities” and “We are committed to fostering and strengthening community.” Those are laudable goals that happen to be espoused by absolutely everyone, but Airbnb is putting its money where its mouth is, opening a Portland hub with an estimated 160 employees.
Scrolling through the Medium story, with all these wonderful images of people helping people and sustainable cityscapes, you might start to get excited that Shared City is about to launch something major, like an effort to end homelessness in America. Not quite. But the program will be installing carbon monoxide detectors in every Airbnb host site in Portland, and as CEO Brian Chesky notes in his Medium post, “We will make it easy for Portland hosts to donate the money they earn from Airbnb to a local cause, and we will match those donations as a percentage of our fees.” So in theory, Portlanders with a spare bedroom could turn their couchsurfers into little engines of philanthropy, and funnel money to a homeless shelter with a boost from Airbnb itself.
This would put some more sharing into the sharing economy, which, as a for-profit model is pretty much the opposite of sharing. What this Airbnb ad is really announcing is its transition from plucky start-up to fully mature company, displaying its full Giving Back plumage by buddying-up with the nation’s hippest city. Austin is also a head of the game in taxing Airbnb like a hotel, so it’s a pretty good guess that equally hip Austin could be Shared City #2.
Sharing is great. Airbnb is great. Portland is great. But the sharing economy can never be more than a niche market because it’s too limited (we all still have to put on our un-shared socks and shoes in the morning) and its successes create too many tensions (the hospitality and service industries employ many millions of people). Shared City does not and probably cannot address every consequence, but it shows potential for companies whose mantra is “Disrupt!” to make it a little nicer as they grow.
Image by Kim Carson via Thinkstock