Responsible home-sharing is creating an economic engine here in Seattle, David Owen, Airbnbs regional public policy director, told a small crowd gathered in the basement of Elliott Bay.
"Responsible home-sharing is creating an economic engine here in Seattle," David Owen, Airbnb's regional public policy director, told a small crowd gathered in the basement of Elliott Bay Book Co. SB

Airbnb isn't going to let the Seattle city council regulate its rentals without presenting its case to the public. This time, though, it appears Airbnb is trying a subtler tack than it took in San Francisco, where the company posted a series of passive-aggressive billboards that bragged about paying taxes while the city considered an Airbnb ballot measure.

At a small gathering in the basement of the Elliott Bay Book Company earlier today, Airbnb employees passed out handwritten signs to local Airbnb hosts before presenting a new report on the company's impact in Seattle. Airbnb is a boon for Seattle in two ways, they argued: first, by allowing retirees to afford their own homes, and second, by providing new customers to local businesses.

"Responsible home-sharing is creating an economic engine here in Seattle," David Owen, Airbnb's regional public policy director, told the small crowd.

The leftover question, of course, is what the city and the company plan to do about irresponsible home-sharing. For a city in the middle of an affordable-housing crisis, city officials want to make sure that Airbnb incentives don't take longterm housing off the market, and that real estate speculators don't invest in new units just so they can rent them on Airbnb.

Hence the new Airbnb report. In it, the company reported that 80 percent of Seattle hosts were renting out their primary residences and that Airbnb rentals contributed $178 million to the local economy between August of 2014 and July of 2015.

The report also quoted a New York University professor who wrote an editorial in the New York Times entitled "Trusting the 'Sharing Economy' to Regulate Itself." Professor Arun Sundararajan wrote: "The emerging peer-to-peer, collaborative 'sharing economy' will be a significant segment of the country's future economic activity, stimulating new consumption, raising productivity and catalyzing individual innovation and entrepreneurship."

Airbnb's Owen, meanwhile, called people investing in Airbnb units simply to make a profit an "edge case scenario," meaning he believes those cases are outliers.

"We want to work with cities to be more transparent about what our community looks like, and that's what we have here today," Owen told me. "So that we can, at a high level, and maybe even at a neighborhood-specific level, help the city understand what the community looks like on our platform, and, you know, find ways to address those issues as they arise."

Owen continued: "But those really are edge cases, and I think the most important thing for the city to say at this point is: This is legal, clearly. This is not. And this is good behavior. And this is what we want to control for. And we're certainly not the only platform that's enabling this market."

To introduce the city to Airbnb's community, Airbnb invited two local hosts to speak—both of whom shared stories about how they were able to rent space in their primary homes, one to afford a mortgage, the other to be able to afford to live without a full-time roommate.

But Airbnb benefits some hosts more than others. Last year, an analysis from Harvard Business School showed that non-black hosts in New York City were able to charge 12 percent more than black hosts for similar units, and that black hosts received bigger price penalties for having bad location scores. A subsequent analysis published by the journal Technology Science found that Asian hosts in Oakland and Berkeley earned 20 percent less than white hosts in the same area.

In order to offset some of the burden of the affordable-housing shortage—which disproportionately affects low-income communities of color—Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute has suggested implementing a tax on short-term rentals like Airbnb that diverts funding to an affordable-housing fund.