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.