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​Airbnb plays nice, offers cities ideas for regulating rentals

The home-rental service releases a Policy Tool Chest to help city officials decide how to regulate short-term rentals -- but it's still on Airbnb's terms.

Airbnb has released a Policy Tool Chest to help cities regulate short-term rentals.

Airbnb

Airbnb has played the bad guy over the past couple of years. The home-rental service fought battles with regulators around the world and sued cities, like New York, San Francisco and Santa Monica, for not letting it operate the way it desired.

But the company appears to be softening its stance.

Airbnb released a Policy Tool Chest on Wednesday that's designed to help city officials decide how to regulate short-term rentals. The 31-page document offers a range of policy options that Airbnb would agree to, along with 10 case studies on cities that have legalized and regulated short-term rentals to the company's satisfaction.

"We're going from the horse and buggy to the car," Chris Lehane, Airbnb's head of global policy, said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "I would look at where we are right now... as a real pivot moment for Airbnb."

Airbnb was founded in 2008 and has gone from catering to couch surfers to having a massive online presence. It now has more than 2 million listings in nearly 200 countries. The company has also raised more than $3 billion in funding, valuing it at $30 billion. To prove it's worth, Airbnb needs to show investors it can play nice and hammer out legal issues with regulators worldwide.

When Airbnb first launched its service, city officials didn't pay much attention to people renting out their homes and rooms on a short-term basis. But as Airbnb became more popular, regulators saw that some landlords were taking homes off the market to capitalize on short-term rentals.

Critics began to accuse Airbnb of contributing to rising rents and tighter housing markets. Cities around the world started cracking down on Airbnb and implementing various rules, like caps on how many nights hosts could rent their homes, limits on the number of places each host could list and mandates requiring hosts to register with cities. For the most part, Airbnb fought back.

However, the company is changing course. Airbnb has entered negotiations with San Francisco, and last week it settled its lawsuit against New York. The company also came to terms with New Orleans last week by agreeing to register and share data on its hosts in exchange for the legalization of short-term rentals. Airbnb additionally announced last week that it was collaborating with London and Amsterdam in limiting the number of days people could rent out their homes per calendar year.

"We've realized we need to be partners with cities," Lehane said during Wednesday's conference call.

The Policy Tool Chest is an extension of Airbnb's recent concessions. Lehane called it "a living, breathing, organic document" that can be added to or changed over time. The tool breaks down into four specific policy compartments in which Airbnb said it can work with cities: tax collection, neighborly conduct, accountability and transparency and privacy.

Within these policy guidelines are various suggestions for collaboration. For example, Airbnb can help lawmakers identify party houses and ensure the houses are being "good neighbors." Or the company can guarantee a "one host, one home" policy that limits people from listing more than one address. Airbnb can also share specific "anonymized" data with cities, such as the amount of income earned by a typical host and the percentage of hosts who are renting their permanent homes.

What works in some cities may not work in others, Lehane said, so it's best for regulators to have options.

"Cities around the world can take a look at what other cities are doing," Lehane said. "This is a new thing and as we go along we're all going to learn."