NSFW: Sorry AirBnB Hipsters, I'll Take Health and Safety Over the Cult of Disruption

Get out of the way, old man! You’re being Disrupted! Screw you, newspapers: blogs are stealing your readers and Craigslist is pillaging your revenue! Take that publishers: Andrew Wiley doesn’t need you and your stupid dead trees!

And as for you, hotels – ha! hotels! – if ever there was an industry ripe for disruption, it’s you clowns. Charging $300 a night for a bed and a shower and a tiny plastic enema of shampoo when AirBnB will let you get the same, and more, for $50, so long as you don’t mind the creepy thrill of living in a stranger’s apartment. Kapow! See you in hell, hotels!

But of course the old men are fighting back – dusting down their old service uniforms and oiling their muskets and surrounding themselves with legislative sandbags to prolong their pathetic existence for another few months. This week, New York Governor, David Paterson, signed a bill outlawing the use of private dwellings as makeshift hotels. The bill, supported by hotel industry lobbyists (natch), bans rentals of less than 30 days and makes operating a residential apartment as a transient hotel illegal in New York City. Good news for big hotels, bad news for poor old New Yorkers who now find themselves banned from letting space in their apartments using AirBnB or Craigslist. And even worse news for NY-bound tourists who will now struggle to find a room in Manhattan for less than $100 a night (apart from these).

As TechDirt’s Mike Masnick puts it, “the internet has made it so that people can be more efficient in things like transportation or short-term housing, and the old guard doesn’t like it one bit, so they come up with regulations like these to outlaw it.”


Except, no.

Disclosure: I like hotels a lot – and I’ve spent much of my life in them. Both of my parents are career-long hoteliers, first managing large corporate chain units and now owning their own hotel in the UK. A couple of years ago I decided to sell almost all of my possessions, abandon my over-priced apartment in London and instead live permanently in hotels – in San Francisco, or wherever in the world I find myself in any given month. I’ve just finished writing a book about hotel living.

In the past thirty years I’ve stayed in hundreds – thousands? – of hotels. Some have been amazingly opulent, some adequate, some dreadful, some absolute flea-pit shit holes by the side of highways in Dallas. But every one of them has been licensed to operate as a hotel. Why? Because I don’t want to be burned alive by faulty wiring. Because I don’t want to be robbed, or scammed or murdered. Because I want to pay by credit card and not have that card cloned. Because I want legal recourse if something goes wrong.

Call me old-fashioned.

In New York, as in many major cities, there is a serious problem with transient hotels. Slum landlords know that even the most scummy city apartment – $500 a month stuff – can deliver that same amount per day simply by packing the place with bunk beds and advertising it on Craigslist or any one of the plethora of foreign language NYC hotel sites as a travelers’ hotel. Not only does this put guests at risk due to a lack of fire exits or basic electrical safety, while causing a living hell of noise and violence and shady goings on for the owners of adjacent apartments – but, given that New York apartment vacancy rates are hovering around 1% (against an 8% national average), it also makes it harder for families to find somewhere else to live when they’re forced out by drug-addled European backpackers armed with camping stoves.

And yet, despite all of these sound reasons for outlawing faux-tels, it seems that some people would rather let a Spaniard burn to death, or a family be left homeless, than allow The Man to impede the rise of AirFuckingBnB.

Says the opening para of this post by one Sean O’Neill, writing on Newsweek’s budget travel blog…

“Hundreds of New Yorkers, like others nationwide, have been making a few extra dollars by using sites such as AirBnB, Crashpadder, Roomorama, and Craigslist to sublet pullout sofas, living rooms, and whole apartments. But that may end soon. This week, New York state senators vote on a bill that would make it illegal for any homeowner or renter to sublet for less than a month.”

And says Joe Gebbia, president of AirBnB.com…

“We have received over 300 letters from New Yorkers who depend on renting by the night to make ends meet. As everyone knows, NYC is financially a challenging place to live – especially in a down economy. The consequences of this generalised bill will negatively impact thousands of New Yorkers more than by the small number of ‘illegal hotels’.”

Yeah, Joe. Screw the small number of “illegal hotels” and the untold misery they cause. Hipsters in peril – that’s the big story here. Except it’s really not. For a start, there’s an explicit exemption in the bill that allows for the letting of rooms in private dwellings if the owner is present (as is often the case in AirBnB lets). And for other lets (absent owners can lend their rooms, but are banned from taking money) State Senator Liz Krueger who sponsored the bill has made it clear that “the city is not going to knock on doors,”; AirBnB users will only fall foul of the law if their neighbours complain. Which they’re perfectly entitled to do.

And yet, commentators like Masnick and O’Neill and entrepreneurs like Gebbia are so enraptured by the cult of “Disruption” – that any use of the Internet to circumvent the traditional way of doing things is inherently good – that they can’t help but see the new law as The Man standing in the way of Progress. Or as Masnick puts it “the hotels, which have their high prices and don’t like the competition.”

They simply can’t contemplate the heretical idea that sometimes The Man is right, and that some of his laws are created for good reason. That not everyone on the Internet is a Gawker-reading, fixie riding hipster who just wants to share his space with weary travelers for a few bucks extra pot money. That some people on Craigslist are criminals. That sometimes legislation is needed to protect innocent people from those criminals, even if it stops the rest of us us doing precisely what we want. And that one of the dictionary definitions of Disrupt is “to interrupt or impede progress”, rather than the opposite.

Blogs disrupting newspapers is great, except when no-one can be held accountable for gross inaccuracies and libels. Online pharmacies disrupting doctors is great until someone is poisoned by Indian ‘viagra’. And advertising rooms on the Internet without legal safeguards is great until the platform is used by gangsters and slum lords to drive families from their apartments and fleece tourists into spending their vacations under unsafe roofs.

If AirBnB et al are so smart then they’ll figure out a way to thrive in New York’s new legislative environment. These are, after all, disruptive times. But if they can’t understand the fact that disruption cuts both ways, and that the right of Internet folk to create awesome new business models doesn’t trump a city’s right to disrupt criminality,  then it’s time for them – not the hotels industry or legislators – to get out of the way. Young man.