After operating for six years in the bustling black market of New Orleans short-term rentals, online listing behemoth Airbnb is for the first time using its own data to paint a profile of itself and its users in the city.
The resulting picture is one of small-time operators who rely on Airbnb to supplement their incomes through the occasional rental of a room or two in their primary residences. The narrative stands in stark contrast with conclusions drawn by critics who, using data scraped from the Airbnb website, say the company's marketing line is bunk, a smokescreen meant to mask the industrial scale of illegal short-term rentals in the city.
About 2,400 property owners used Airbnb to book guests over the previous 12 months, the company said in its report. Of those hosts, the overwhelming majority booked rooms in their primary residence. On average, they earned $10,900 over the course of the year.
Most hosts were long-time New Orleans residents, many of them older, according to the company.
The benefits to the city's economy, meanwhile, were significant, the report states. Airbnb guests spent a combined $140 million, citing a survey of New Orleans tourists who booked lodging through its website. About 70 percent said they spent more money on food and entertainment at local businesses because they were able to save money on lodging, according to the report.
You can read the company's full report below.
The company is releasing the data in conjunction with a University of New Orleans panel discussion on the future of short-term rentals in the city. The talk is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 17) in Room 129 of Kirschman Hall and is free and open to the public.
The report and the panel discussion are part of a larger public relations push the company is making as New Orleans lawmakers consider whether to legalize and regulate the short-term-rental industry, which, though vast, currently operates almost entirely underground.
After high-profile fights in cities such as New York and San Francisco, the company recently announced a "community compact" that would guide how Airbnb works with cities as they implement regulatory regimes. In it, the company pledges to help cities collect hotel and lodging taxes and to "build an open and transparent" relationship with the community.
For years, the company refused to release much, if any, data on the individual markets in which it operates, leaving others to fill the information void through unauthorized scrapes of the company's website.
In some respects, the scrapers' findings are not far off those released by Airbnb. For example, NOLA Rental Report, a locally produced analysis, and Inside Airbnb, an analysis by a New York software engineer, both estimated that about 70 percent of the company's listings in New Orleans are for "whole home" rentals rather than rooms in otherwise occupied residences.
Members of Airbnb's public policy and communications teams cited a similar figure but said the number can be misleading. The prevailing housing styles in New Orleans includes shotgun doubles and larger houses with converted garages or former servants' quarters. A host could list something as a "whole home" even if the unit for rent is actually on the same property as the owner's main residence.
There's also some noise in the data because people sometimes list their units twice, once as a whole-home rental, for guests willing to pay a premium, and once as a spare room, for people of more modest means, the company's representatives said.
Inside Airbnb and the NOLA Rental Report were highly skeptical of the company's assertion that most of its hosts are small-time operators who only rent out their places occasionally, saying the data suggests many users are running de facto hotels, houses dedicated entirely to the tourist trade. Inside Airbnb said that more than 90 percent of listings were "highly available," meaning they were listed as available for more than 60 days in the last year.
"Entire homes or apartments highly available year-round for tourists, probably don't have the owner present, could be illegal, and more importantly, are displacing residents," wrote Murray Cox, the Inside Airbnb report's author.
Max Pomeranc, who works on Airbnb's government relations team, said that's not a fair conclusion to make from the data. A lot of users create profiles and list their houses but never actually accept a booking, he said. Others book only occasionally but keep the property listed as "available" all the time, he said.
Among New Orleans hosts who actually booked a stay in the last year, half booked fewer than 30 days, according to the company's data. Nearly all, about 92 percent, booked fewer than 180 nights, meaning the properties would have been vacant half the time if the hosts didn't live there themselves, Pomeranc said.
"If you are leaving it empty half the year, that's not a very good business," he said.
Airbnb's report and the ones from unauthorized data scrapes promote competing narratives, but that's not the only thing that sets them apart.
Both the NOLA Rental Report and Inside Airbnb made the data underpinning their conclusions, down to the individual listings themselves, available to the public. Airbnb's report, on the other hand, included only a high-level analysis and did not release information on individual hosts or listings.
Pomeranc said the company was doing its best to be transparent, but it couldn't justify the release of granular data, even if it was sanitized of personally identifying information. When individual listings are disclosed, there's always a risk that people could be able to identify individual hosts, and that wasn't a risk the company was willing to take, he said.