Just who lists short-term rentals on the website Airbnb is a hotly contested question. The company has argued that the site is “for the people, by the people, of the people”—a way for ordinary homeowners and renters to wring some extra utility out of their homes. Critics say the website is a boon to professional landlords who shirk taxes and drive up rental prices by turning housing stock into quasi-hotels.
A new study of data captured from Airbnb's website, conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University with funding from a hotel industry trade group that is critical of Airbnb, suggests that much of the activity on the site centers around homes owned by professional or commercial landlords, rather than individuals or families renting out their primary homes.
Airbnb guests in 12 major metropolitan areas spent $1.3 billion—a figure that include rental costs and fees—over a 13 month period ending in September of last year, said the report, which was paid for by the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
Thirty-nine percent of that revenue, or more than $500 million, was generated by landlords that operated more than one unit. Twenty-nine percent came from operators who offered units for more than 360 days of the year, the report said.
“Full-time operators represent a small portion of hosts and a large, disproportionate share of revenue,” said John O’Neill, one of the report’s authors, and director of the Center for Hospitality Real Estate Strategy at Pennsylvania State University. “This isn’t couch surfing or someone periodically renting. This is people running commercial enterprises.”
Some cities, like San Francisco, have laws limiting the amount of days per year that a host can let their home. The study's findings also speak to concerns that Airbnb encourages property owners to take housing stock out of the traditional market, limiting supply and increasing prices.
“This study shows that the hotel industry gets what it pays for, which in this case is a specious study intended to mislead and manipulate," said Nick Papas, an Airbnb spokesman, in an email. "Airbnb is succeeding for the very simple reason that our hosts—the vast majority of whom are middle class people sharing their homes in order to create supplemental income—provide guests authentic, transformative experiences."
To produce the study, the researchers used data scraped from Airbnb’s website for full-unit listings— excluding shared rooms and unconventional dwellings “such as boats, tree houses and tents.” O'Neill’s isn’t the first attempt to describe Airbnb landlords based on data scraped from the website. Earlier research, based on five U.S. cities, found that 40 percent of listings were operated by hosts with more than one unit listed on the site.
According to an analysis of data Airbnb released about its business in New York City, less than 2 percent of hosts in the city operated three or more units. Those landlords accounted for 24 percent of revenue. The Penn State researchers found that 17 percent of revenue in the New York City metropolitan area came from operators listing three or more units, and 32 percent of revenue came from operators with two or more listings.
The Penn State team bought data for its analysis from Airdna, a company that sells consulting services to Airbnb hosts. In October, the Hotel Association of New York City, another industry group, took a swipe at Airbnb, arguing that the company is costing the city billions of dollars in economic losses.