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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Armed Guards and Shootings Plague Airbnb’s Party Ban

The music was blaring, the bar was overflowing, and the air was thick with weed smoke. Armed security holding long guns kept watch. It was a Saturday night in February, and around 300 people were partying hard at a near-5,000 square-foot Airbnb in rural Ohio. Then the cops arrived.

As the Tuscarawas County Sheriff's deputies rolled in, revelers locked the doors. Fights broke out, police records show. Someone threw a can of Red Bull at an officer. People fled. In the chaos, one partygoer refused to cooperate and allegedly got into a car to flee and struck a deputy.

Airbnb permanently banned parties in 2022, two years after it put them on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic—but large-scale and often dangerous parties still plague the platform. In April 2022, at least 11 people were shot, two of whom were teens who died, at a 200-person house party at an Airbnb in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And in December 2022, five people were shot and one died at an Airbnb in Rochester, New York, where the group was filming a music video. The unauthorized parties have resulted in serious injury and death, damaged property, and disrupted communities.

And the gatherings extend across the United States, far from the bright lights of party cities like Austin or New Orleans. The Ohio house, just to the east of the state’s Amish Country, is advertised as a getaway with a heated swimming pool and room for family activities, like “games, quilting, and scrapbooking.” It’s perched on a hill in a rural community of just under 100,000 people equidistant to Columbus, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. There’s a nature preserve, some farms, and a camp nearby.

Hundreds of reviews have left the home with a rating of 4.97 stars out of 5. But, with just a few clicks, this rural idyll was turned into a dangerous rager.

Party Pooper

As the parties continue, Airbnb says it has stepped up its efforts to thwart them. The Airbnb party ban might stretch back to the pandemic, but problematic guests are as old as Airbnb itself. In October 2019, the issue hit a tipping point, when a mass shooting at an Airbnb in a wealthy San Francisco suburb left five people dead. Airbnb soon after announced the launch of a 24/7 “Neighbor Hotline,” and said it would work harder to screen high-risk reservations and verify listings.

Airbnb now runs background checks on guests in the US and India. As of June, all Airbnb guests and primary hosts must undergo an identity verification process by providing photo ID that matches details on their profiles. Airbnb says it may also use names, phone numbers, addresses, dates of birth, or a Social Security number, and match it to third-party databases.

Those screening processes follow earlier prevention measures, which included restrictions on renting to some under-25-year-olds, and limiting the number of Airbnb guests to 16 (though stays that can accommodate more than 16 are permitted to do so again). Airbnb’s booking software looks at a guest’s past reviews and history booking with Airbnb, the length of their trip, how far they live from the listing, and whether they want to book on a weekend or weekday to try to flag possible partiers. The system’s scrutinies on reservations are heightened during holiday weekends, the company says. Yet critics argue that parties still happen, people find loopholes, and the protections aren’t enough—and that strong, local regulation is needed to keep people safe.

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Airbnb says parties are a harmful but rare problem. Just 0.039 percent of global bookings resulted in party complaints in 2022. The number of party reports since the ban went into effect has declined by 62 percent in the US, according to company figures. Naba Banerjee, the director of trust at Airbnb, says that when there is a party, Airbnb investigates the incidents, and may suspend listings or guest accounts. Within weeks of the Ohio party with armed guards, WIRED found the listing back on Airbnb.

But the party problem is a moving target. Banerjee says Airbnb is “continuously learning” and trying to see how booking trends for parties change. That means not just monitoring bad guests, but good ones, too. Airbnb is experimenting with technology to identify how a guest might behave during their stay during the booking process. This, Banerjee says, helps it to better identify green flags as well as red ones. But Banerjee also says there needs to be a larger awareness about how harmful parties are, and that comes from partnerships between communities and law enforcement and the company, as well as guests and hosts understanding their roles. “When trust is lost, that impacts the whole community—not just Airbnb,” she says.

It’s not just a problem on Airbnb. Short-term rentals in general, or those listed on competing sites like Vrbo, are also party magnets. Vrbo’s policy states that “house parties, unless expressly permitted, aren’t permitted.” In January, Vrbo announced its own anti-party measures. It generates “risk scores” for each booking, and allows Vrbo hosts to see potential flags and cancel bookings, considering the length of a person’s stay, how long prior to the stay the booking was made, the number of guests, the day of the week the booking begins, and the property’s amenities. Just 0.25 percent of Vrbo bookings in the US resulted in party complaints last year, according to the company.

But less than a month after those guidelines were announced, gunshots were fired at a party at a Vrbo rental. A stray bullet hit the window of a 3-year-old’s playroom, though nobody was hurt. Vrbo permanently removed the listing from its platform after the shooting occurred, according to Richard de Sam Lazaro, senior director of US state and local government and corporate affairs for Expedia Group, Vrbo’s parent company. It’s the kind of incident that has rattled neighborhoods around the US, and left people searching for their own solutions.

Long-Term Problem

Since 2019, there have been hundreds of shootings tied to short-term rentals, according to new stories tracked by Jessica Black, who sees herself as an accidental activist of sorts. Black became an Airbnb critic out of a desire to protect the geniality of her own neighborhood in Arlington, Texas. But she uncovered an issue that went beyond her neighborhood. “It became about accountability,” Black says.

Black has been following short-term rentals since. Their rise near AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys, began affecting her neighborhood. The community pushed back and advocated for local control over short-term rentals, and a short-term rental zone was established within a one-mile radius that covers the entertainment district near the stadium. But Black, an attorney by training who is now a stay-at-home mom, didn’t stop at Arlington. She cofounded the TX Neighborhood Coalition, which opposes statewide rules for short-term rentals and helps communities forge their own policies instead. And unruly partying is one of the driving issues.

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She’s among a large group of frustrated residents. Ashley Travis, who lives near a rental house in North Dallas where a shooting took place in 2021, feels short-term rental apps have brought problems to their neighborhoods, and left homeowners fighting back. “They cannot control who rents the homes, and they can’t control what goes on in them,” she says. “It’s growth at all costs, and we’ll clean up the mess that comes with that.” In June, Dallas City Council approved a ban on short-term rentals in single-family homes.

As the bullets fly and local residents rail against problem short-term rentals, lawmakers in some US states are also moving to centralize control of the rules that govern how short-term rentals operate. In Texas, lawmakers have considered stripping power away from communities in favor of top-down controls, and introduced a bill this year to study local regulations.

Such sweeping legislation is at odds with the patchwork approach to tackling problem short-term rentals. Dallas has tried to ban short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods entirely. Residents of Austin are fed up with people who travel there to party, too. New York City has tangled with Airbnb and enacted new regulations this year that affect the right to operate thousands of rentals. That state-versus-city tension exists in Ohio, too: city councilors in Cleveland have tried to crack down on short-term rentals. But some state lawmakers have pushed to override their ability to control how homeowners sublet their properties.

The Canadian province of Quebec is one of many jurisdictions that has required short-term rentals to be registered with a local authority and display a registration code, but the rule was largely unenforced. That changed in March 2023 when a fire at an illegal Airbnb in Montreal killed seven people. Airbnb has since promised to remove listings in Quebec that have not registered with the province.

The fiercest critics of short-term rentals don’t believe the platforms can put a stop to parties or rogue rentals in general. The only way, perhaps, is to go all-in on local control, restricting and licensing short-term rentals in specific communities. That would allow districts known for tourism to keep renting, and shield residential areas from the growing wave of short-term rentals. And it would make the rules uniform, whether the property was listed on Airbnb, Vrbo, or through a local management company. It’s part of a larger pushback against how short-term rental economies are reshaping communities—pricing out local residents, and bringing chaos with them.

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