Photographer: John Taggart

Airbnb and Uber to Democrats: You Need Us

The two companies are using their popularity at the DNC to argue that young people could punish politicians who don't get on board with the sharing economy.

The Democratic National Convention is relying heavily on Airbnb to house attendees, and the company wants to remind the visiting politicians that it could use their support, too. 

About 40,000 people are in Philadelphia for the convention, and Airbnb says 7,000 of them are using its home rental services, staying in spaces rented out by 3,000 hosts. By contrast, people have booked about 15,000 hotel rooms, according to the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

The Democratic convention drew significantly more guests than the Republican convention last week in Cleveland, in which 1,100 Airbnb hosts rented out rooms to 2,500 people. That tracks a partisan divide in Airbnb users from past political conventions. In 2008, there were 49 hosts at the Democratic convention in Denver. Just two people rented out rooms at that year’s Republican convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Airbnb and Uber, the two giants of the sharing economy, hosted a panel in Philadelphia Tuesday morning to remind Democrats that their growing popularity comes with potential political opportunities and risks. A survey the company released at the convention found that 80 percent of millennials support Airbnb operating legally in their area. To make sure no one missed the point, Airbnb’s release noted that this included millennials living in swing states.

“If you’re a candidate whether running for president or really any other office, to quote-unquote 'speak millennial,’ you ought to be talking about the sharing economy, because it is core and central to their economic future,” said Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s head of policy and public affairs and a former aide to President Bill Clinton. He added that by 2025 about 75 percent of all "voters and consumers" will be millennials or the generations that come after them. "The politics of this country is really going to evolve pretty significantly, given the attitudes, perspectives, and approach of that generation," he said.   

Airbnb has been working diligently to solidify its political connections in recent weeks, as it faces blowback over its response to racially discriminatory behavior from some of its hosts, and continued political battles in its most important markets. Last week it announced that it had hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to help it address racism. Two days later, the company formed an advisory council of former mayors to help navigate local regulations. Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia and a member of the council, appeared onstage at the event Tuesday. Airbnb is also hosting an event on civil rights with BET in Philadelphia. 

Still, the Democratic Party’s attitude towards the sharing economy is complicated. Earlier this month, three Democratic U.S. senators asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Airbnb to determine how the short-term rental market was exerting housing shortages and driving up the cost of living in already expensive markets. When Hillary Clinton published her plan for technology and innovation in June, she said that the digital economy was providing new opportunities but also raising new questions about the future of work and the efficacy of the safety net. Clinton said she’d bring together business and labor leaders to discuss the issue. 

Philadelphia officials have embraced Airbnb. But the situation is muddier for Uber. The company has struggled to operate its UberX and UberPool services legally, and faces legal action from taxi companies that say it unfairly avoids regulations. Early this month, Uber reached a deal with city officials allowing it to operate legally until Sept. 30 to help alleviate short-term stress on the transportation system. Drivers and disability advocates—who are unhappy about Uber’s lack of wheelchair-available vehicles—have staged protests outside the Democrats' convention hall.

Uber's and Airbnb's biggest fights over the next four years are unlikely to be waged against a Clinton or Trump administration. Instead, they’ll involve local and state governments, which find themselves in a tricky political situation. As the companies took pains to note on Tuesday, many Democratic voters are personal fans of their services and also see them as a sign of broader innovation. But Uber and Airbnb also inspire strong opposition from traditional power bases of the Democratic Party, like labor and housing activists. 

Nutter, the former Philadelphia mayor, dismissed this opposition as both self-interested and inevitable during his panel discussion: “I’m quite sure that the horse and buggy hired the appropriate number of lobbyists and lawyers to fight Henry Ford and folks coming along with these newfangled things called cars.”

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