Airbnb’s silence raises more questions

The email that dropped into my inbox late last week was innocuous enough. It announced a “webinar” on housing people displaced by disasters. But then, it turned out that the sponsor of the webinar was Airbnb.com. To me, that refocused the entire discussion.

Airbnb.com billed this as its “first ever Disaster Response &Relief webinar.” It offered volunteer organizations — ranging from small nonprofits and church groups to large government-operated programs and international aid organizations that work on Kauai to learn from the company’s promotion team “as they share more about Airbnb’s Disaster Response Program, how it started, how they work and most importantly to learn more about the Open Homes platform for emergency housing.”

That’s what really got my attention, because the various online vacation rental brokers — which include Airbnb.com and VRBO.com — bear more than a little responsibility for the lack of available housing for local residents and in many cases enriching absentee owners who pocket vacation rental cash and contribute little to the community.

The implication was that our island community should simply shut up and be grateful — sort of in the context of the old sugar plantations — for crumbs distributed to the people.

According to local residents in Haena who serve as volunteer monitors of illegal TVRs (transient vacation rentals), one such vacation rental alone often hosts groups of up to 16 people, who share one cesspool. Imagine what the seepage from that one cesspool does to reefs in Haena as the sewage filters into the ocean.

This rental, as I wrote in a story that appeared in this newspaper in late May, continued to advertise on Airbnb.com after Mayor Bernard Carvalho signed an order shutting down transient vacation rentals west of Hanalei after the calamitous storms of mid-April. I wanted to find out what Airbnb.com has to say to a coolly factual account of its impact on the North Shore ecology.

Correctly, Airbnb.com noted that its website now says TVRs in the Haena-Wainiha area are unavailable. But it took the company more than a month to stop advertising places that could not be occupied legally by tourists.

Bear in mind that over the past few years, Airbnb and the other TVR websites have lured property owners with promises of riches greater than what they can make if they rent homes to local residents. West of Hanalei, there are an estimated 81 permitted TVRs and maybe 36 illegal ones, according to local residents with intimate familiarity with the situation. Does Airbnb.com check on the local legality of properties listed on its website? They refused to say.

In fact, all Airbnb.com had to say in response to focused, specific questions about their Kauai operations — such as whether they are sensitive to the ramifications of increasing TVR rentals on the overall rental housing stock for residents of Kauai — was cloaked in PR-speak:

“Almost immediately following the issuance of the mayor’s directive, we blocked calendars and canceled reservations for listings in affected areas. We continue to comply with the mayor’s directive.”

The statement came from Mattie Zazueta, an Airbnb public relations person. She provided no response when I asked her why one specific Haena property had continued to list on the website for more than a month after Carvalho signed his first closure order.

In fairness to Zazueta, it was clear she was in over her head. She did not understand the difference between “on the record” and “on background.” Those terms may also be meaningless to you, but to any reporter or experienced communications professional with more than a year or so of experience, a wide chasm separates them.

“On the record” means to a reporter that whatever you say in an interview can be freely attributed to you and whoever you work for by name. “On background” means the interviewee provides ostensibly factual information with the agreement from the reporter that no one can be quoted and the information can only be used in limited ways.

As I pointed out to Vazueta, I didn’t agree to any limitation on quoting her or Airbnb.com, so she also said in a stunning nonsequitur:

“We work with numerous nonprofit organizations both locally and globally to ensure we are providing support that is both needed and requested by the local community. In Kauai we made a donation to help first responders working in the impacted areas.”

What lucky nonprofit got this donation and how much was it? Silence.

But back to the North Shore. In May, I wrote a story for this newspaper that addressed the effects of Internet-based vacation rental sites on local Kauai rental housing availability. I was shocked when I saw the Census figures. Between 2010 and 2015, the corridor’s permanent resident population dropped 45 percent from 1,199 to 658, while the number of residential living spaces grew 6 percent from 803 to 850.

It doesn’t take a lot of focus to understand this. As Kauai’s tourist industry has expanded, the lure of money has removed more and more local housing units from the pool available to Kauai people. This, in turn, plays a role in worsening an islandwide housing shortage.

Airbnb’s webinar was devoted to a “platform” it has created called “Open Homes.” The company claims to have responded to 250 disasters since this program was started in 2012. In the program, vacation rental owners, which Airbnb.com calls “hosts,” provide free, short-term housing to disaster victims.

Where were these disasters? What are the specifics of this free housing? Silence.

The appeal to nonprofit disaster response organizations is obvious. If there’s a catastrophe, people are displaced. They need temporary housing, often desperately. “Hosts” who do business with Airbnb.com — and, accordingly, profit from their rentals as opposed to putting their properties into the local housing pool — are said to be lining up to respond.

How many such “hosts” stepped forward on Kauai after the April disaster and how many people were housed temporarily? Silence.

There is no question that the abundance of TVRs on Kauai has had a positive effect on our island’s visitor industry income. There’s also no question that businesses ranging from restaurants and bars to jewelry and art galleries make more money from increased travel to Kauai. But the question of what the cost has been to the island is daunting.

Airbnb’s “Open Homes” project looks uncomfortably like a PR scam. How long can conscientious disaster response nonprofits continue to accept assistance from this project on Kauai? Silence was the response.

•••

Allan Parachini is a journalist and a former public relations executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

11 Comments
  1. Makaala Kaaumoana August 26, 2018 5:33 am Reply

    Mahalo Allan for this important story. It should be added that the cost of TVR’s, legal and illegal, during a disaster includes very pricey evacuation of tourists staying in harm’s way. No resort is allowed in hazardous areas and yet all of thise in Wainiha and Haena are in places where flooding is expected. The April floods proved this point as tourists abandoned cars and belongings to be flown out by military transport. Tourist accommodatuons belong un safe, appropriately zoned places, for a reason we just experienced.


  2. james August 26, 2018 5:58 am Reply

    Let me tell you a story. A neighbor of ours thought it would be a good idea to start an illegal AirBNB. Visitors began showing up at all hours, knocking on our doors, and looking for the AirBNB. Another neighbor, with all of our backing, contacted the County. We all gathered evidence, ie times, dates, videos, pictures of cars, etc. The County investigated, and eventually, shut it down and fined the owner for having an illegal BNB. Our neighborhood returned to a quiet, nice place to live. If you know of someone ruining your neighborhood with an illegal AirBNB, contact the County. They will act, and with enough evidence, will shut them down and fine them.


  3. Natalie Kranjcevich August 26, 2018 8:04 am Reply

    The actual costs means less than nothing for those that profit. The federal tax breaks from investment property exacerbates availability, They’re able to subtract(not deduct expenses from revenue but subtract from taxes due) business losses at high rates for decades. So it is a tremendous opportunity to grossly inflate rent for loss purposes and declare bankruptcy and walk away with zero liability.

    Profiteers do not value culture, peace, environment……………..


  4. PayItForward August 26, 2018 8:30 am Reply

    Nicely written Alan, as usual! Hopefully you, or someone else will carry on with Joan Conrow’s exposes on illegal TVRs mascarading as BnB’s on the North Shore. As for the “legal” ones, they should be required to install septic tanks before having any permits or licenses issued to them…period! As for Air BnBullcrap: as with Facesucker, they will never be, even by a small percentage, operated “in the public interest”. Air BnB should be banned from operation anywhere in the state! They have proven many times that they should be able to operate how they like, without any regard to the localities their listings are in. They are law breakers, and that is their MO.


  5. RG DeSoto August 26, 2018 10:50 am Reply

    “That’s what really got my attention, because the various online vacation rental brokers — which include Airbnb.com and VRBO.com — bear more than a little responsibility for the lack of available housing for local residents and in many cases enriching absentee owners who pocket vacation rental cash and contribute little to the community.”
    More clap-trap from the anti-property rights cabal. So, Allan would have us believe that the homes used for vacation rentals would be filled with local renters in the absence of visitor renters? The real issue is simply a dearth of housing supply, thanks to the very same people and agencies moaning about the absence of “affordable” rentals. Couple the artificially constricted supply of housing with increasing demand from population growth as well as new family formation and there’s the problem.
    Even the lefty-progressive Hooser admits as much when he penned his opposition to proposed easing of density restrictions in Lihue.
    The simple fact is that people like Allan, Hooser et.al. just don’t care about the people they purport to want to help…if they did, they would support island wide easing of density and zoning restrictions that would open up the supply of building lots and stimulate building.
    RG SeSoto


  6. mbeqd August 26, 2018 1:57 pm Reply

    Mahalo RG DeSoto:

    “The real issue is simply a dearth of housing supply, thanks to the very same people and agencies moaning about the absence of “affordable” rentals. Couple the artificially constricted supply of housing with increasing demand from population growth as well as new family formation and there’s the problem.”

    The fact is that the only way that affordable housing will be created is if the zoning changes and developers are given good incentives to build it. You’re all kidding yourselves if you think making people rent long term will make more affordable housing especially on the north shore where land prices and taxes are so high. The simple truth is that supply and demand control prices. You can’t just arbitrarily blame the lack of affordable housing on TVRs. AirBnb is a prime culprit in the lack of affordable housing because it allows partial homes and rooms to be advertised. There is your “affordable” housing. Nothing is affordable in Hawaii. Get used to it. That is not going to change. Trying to force the issue is not going to help either. The county has to act in a responsible manner by allowing for some zoning changes. Period.


  7. Judith Fernandez August 26, 2018 4:34 pm Reply

    Thank you, Allan for this ongoing discussion about the impact of the TVR/etc. vacation rentals. I propose that the county pass an ordinance requiring septic tanks, maximum number of renters, and the budget increase the personnel to check out each one and shut down the illegal ones. Oh, and don’t forget checking for income and excise tax violations. Violations such as non-compliance with ADR regs would be a good idea. After this election I hope to learn the new council and mayor give this a top priority.
    Other vacation sites are getting tough on the overwhelming tourist numbers, such as Venice, Italy, and I believe Australia or New Zealand. Local gov. MUST meet their responsibilities or our island will be ruined with garbage, lack of sanitation, and overuse of trails, bathrooms, etc. Or maybe we should all just sell our homes and leave the island entirely to tourists who can abuse the monk seals, throw garbage everywhere and clog the highways.


  8. GardenGirl August 26, 2018 4:59 pm Reply

    As usual, letters to the editor tend to the extremes. No, neither the vacation rental owners nor the politicians and writers cited are bad people. The vacation rental companies are not evil. As a vacation rental owner who rents on both VRBO and Airbnb (my unit is legal, in Princeville), I feel the need to point out that the companies are just that, companies. Of course they’re in business to make money, but that doesn’t make them evil. The vast majority of the units listed on Kauai are in legal visitor accommodation areas. It’s not the companies’ fault that owners choose this option. We do this because we earn more than we would with long-term rentals, plus short-term guests tend to be much more gentle in their usage of the property, and we don’t ever have to worry about them refusing to move out. And while I do long-term rental to locals at my other property in Haena (where I have owned and lived in my home for 25 years), rather than vacation rental, I personally would rather see my neighbors renting out an extra bedroom in their own home than see entire houses renting out to vacationers. I like the idea of a local resident keeping an eye on visitors, making sure they’re not too noisy at night, not going in the ocean when the waves are too high, and keeping that money in local hands. I don’t like the idea of absentee owners renting out homes in illegal areas, and I agree with the gentleman who suggested we report that to the county when we see this taking place. That’s the kind of situation that makes all our property taxes go up, and the neighborhoods go down.


  9. james August 27, 2018 5:53 am Reply

    RG SeSoto’s view is that more development would make Kauai a better place to live. He says “The simple fact is that people like Allan, Hooser et.al. just don’t care about the people they purport to want to help…if they did, they would support island wide easing of density and zoning restrictions that would open up the supply of building lots and stimulate building.” So more building and density will make Kauai better? For who? Developers and Fat Cats? The price of homes in the new subdivision in Hanamaulu START at $520,000 for just over a thousand square feet and you can literally reach out your window and touch your neighbor’s home, Just like subdivisions in Southern California. Is this the future we want for this rural Island? Why not keep Kauai a nice, rural, sleepy, incredibly beautiful place to live instead of building homes on every square inch like Oahu? Isn’t that why we live here?


    1. RG DeSoto August 27, 2018 3:17 pm Reply

      James wants to have the cake and eat it too…that is more housing without actually building any! The dearth of rationality on display is astounding.
      “Why not keep Kauai a nice, rural, sleepy, incredibly beautiful place to live instead of building homes on every square inch like Oahu? (always the extreme proposition when no logical argument comes to mind, James) Isn’t that why we live here?” Well then James, quit whining about affordable housing and blaming the “rich”…I know, if progressives like you, Hooser et al, had your way (i.e. were dictators) you could remove people and bar anyone from moving here. Another good program would be to prohibit new family formation and child birth.
      RG DeSoto


  10. Some guy August 27, 2018 12:46 pm Reply

    Alan maybe you can leave back for mainland and let local fam live in your place. Be part of solution!


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