What’s going on with Airbnb in LA?

Today’s LA Times says “Airbnb cuts ties with vacation-rental firms in Los Angeles“. The story says that “Two of the home-sharing giant’s largest Los Angeles-area hosts—vacation-rental firms with dozens of apartments apiece—said Friday that Airbnb had dropped them from its site this week, canceling upcoming bookings and scrubbing their listings.”

An Airbnb rep called one of the affected landlords (AE Hospitality) and “mentioned the growth plans of Airbnb conflicts with us listing on their website… No explicit reason was given.”

I got a call from Tim Logan, one of the reporters on the story, asking if I could see anything going on, and was able to take a quick look and (at that time) it looked like 10 of the top 13 hosts (in terms of number of listings) were completely removed from the site, and I’m quoted in the story with that figure. Now I’ve been able to take a more complete look and can say a bit more.

There are two questions, of course. One is “What is happening?” What listings are being removed, whose are they, and what can we tell about those listings? The second question is “Why?” Let’s start with the “What?”

I ran a survey of Los Angeles in October 2014, and another over the last couple of days. Here are the main findings.

There is always a lot of flux in Airbnb listings, and much of that comes from people who give the service a try and then decide it’s not for them. But in Los Angeles there is something else. Here is a table showing the top   hosts (by number of listings) from October 2014, and the number of listings they now have on the site.

Table 1: The top hosts (by number of listings) in October 2014, and the number of listings they had then (2nd column) and have now (3rd) on Airbnb. The link goes to the host page (if it exists) or is redirected to a generic Airbnb page if the host has been removed.
Host ID October 2014 April 2015 Reviews Average Rating
3965199 74 0 15 4.50
1463129 73 0 397 4.47
558295 50 0 113 4.54
293855 30 0 296 4.26
7954 26 0 47 4.60
295792 23 0 143 4.68
3281907 23 0 25 4.50
66892 22 0 65 4.68
2917744 22 1 291 4.85
4925293 20 0 27 4.85
9088345 20 0 120 4.41
465624 18 18 789 4.44
8608492 18 0 39 4.42
3392276 16 18 43 4.67
8518444 16 21 23 4.52
49765 15 13 1 0.00
148358 15 11 160 4.95
1497543 15 15 252 4.76
3127239 15 15 184 4.32
8206200 15 15 109 4.39
57161 14 16 145 4.31
1466173 14 15 517 4.30
3324376 14 15 101 5.00
11907135 14 0 39 4.18
1316725 13 14 9 4.83
1458653 13 13 291 4.60
3947940 13 13 142 4.23
7266554 13 24 127 4.58
16151602 13 14 67 4.34
489690 12 12 46 4.72
1173362 12 0 150 4.45
2324191 12 15 173 4.32
3967730 12 14 118 4.64
4265938 12 8 42 4.11
5592355 12 10 68 4.62
219283 11 16 34 4.78
239712 11 12 590 4.23
1221532 11 12 25 4.30
1254174 11 12 86 3.90
3097566 11 11 88 4.45
9762413 11 12 253 4.57
9928881 11 0 20 4.40
19341612 11 0 12 4.54
213865 10 9 158 4.46
2622454 10 10 780 4.52
5281327 10 4 212 4.65
5425196 10 0 190 4.17
9505402 10 19 247 4.65
9759851 10 11 8 4.69
3343353 9 14 14 4.89

Airbnb has basically removed all the top hosts (who had 20 or more listings) and also removed a smattering of others. (If you have a booking at this listing I would make other plans.)

So why has Airbnb done this? They made their usual bland, substance-free comment to the LA Times: that the company’s “mission is to connect hosts with guests and provide a quality, local and authentic experience. We routinely review our platform for market quality and adherence to this mission.”

Quality looks out: as a user to the site what you see is the rating of the listing, and many of the eliminated hosts have high average ratings. For example, the Urban Flat Team have had their listings removed but had an average rating of 4.85 (out of five), while the Venice Beach Hostel has a rating of only 3.90 (which is pretty crap) but is still on the site.

It’s also nothing to do with the type of listing. Most of the top listers are listing out mainly “Entire home/apt” listings (as opposed to a private room in a house or a shared room) but then so does Prive Luxury Rentals and they have actually increased their number of listings from 16 to 21.

What’s left is the statement of the sales rep to the AE Hostel agency: that these listings are interfering (probably with no fault of their own) with Airbnb’s public image. The LA Times mentions the possibility
of maneuvering in advance of an IPO, and this must be in the minds of some of the Airbnb executives. Also, the LAANE report from last month may be having an impact.

My guess is that Airbnb knows it has to look after its image as a peer-to-peer company, and that they are removing some of the most high profile professional partners from the site in preparation. So all well and good (although hardly fair on those partners), but is it sincere?

Probably not. Here are a few facts that Airbnb will probably not publicise:

  • In October 2014 there were 49 hosts with 10 or more listings in LA. Now there are 60.
  • In October 2014, visits to Airbnb hosts in LA were split evenly between “single-lister” hosts and “multi-lister” hosts. Now the balance has tilted slightly towards multi-listers: their percentage has increased from 50% to 52%.
  • In New York, where Airbnb previously had a clean-up of large listers, the number of hosts with 10 or more listings has increased from 19 to 46 between October 2014 and March of this year.

In short, the professionalization of the Airbnb business continues, and this looks like just an attempt to remove some of the more obvious commercial companies.

Could it be something else? Of course it could, but if Airbnb wants to be taken seriously as a company that can regulate itself (and it really does) then it needs to come clean with the reasons for its actions rather than hiding between vacuous PR speak and turning, seemingly at random, on its partners.

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  1. Have you followed up on the removals in any way? For example the second listing in the table shows recent reviews when you click through so it appears that they are still accepting listings.
    Lots of work to check but it may be that some of the multiple listers have broken their listings into several components to make it appear that AirBnB is peer to peer – are they really gone or simply reconstituted in another form that looks less corporate?
    It’s common in development and commercial real estate to form lots of LLCs to handle individual properties even though the ownership remains the same. Might be an interesting exercise to see if multiple listers are actually connected in some way.

    • That “second listing” is GHC, who were featured in the LAANE report and in the LA Times article. Yesterday all their listings were gone (hence the zero); today they are back (at least 15 of them). A quick run down the table shows that one other host is back on the site. Looks like the situation is still very much in flux.

      I know what you mean about the multiple listers, and I have heard of that in other places (eg Paris) but I don’t have the means to follow up. Luckily, in some places people who know the city as well as the web site are doing so (the LAANE report being a great example, and some others) but as you say it is difficult work.

      • Just saw this article: http://thinkprogress.org/world/2015/04/03/3642660/theres-one-nagging-problem-airbnb-coming-cuba/
        which may be of interest.
        Like you I don’t have the time or resources to follow up but it would be very interesting to see how many AirBnB properties are part of a REIT or some other investment vehicle. Maybe an investigative reporter will take this one on at some point. Crosschecking state licensed corporate entities against AirBnB property listings would be time consuming but I’m willing to bet that such an effort would yield a very different picture of what AirBnB actually is.
        As an aside, after the real estate meltdown in 2007-8 several private equity firms like Blackstone gobbled up lots of foreclosures and turned them into rental units. For awhile this was touted as the next big thing. Problems with local property management and logistics put a damper on the trend but one doesn’t have to strain to speculate how something of this nature could fit into the AirBnB model.

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