The hotel industry has never liked Airbnb. Since the launch of the short-term rental company in 2008, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the sector’s trade group and lobbying arm, has urged cities to tax, restrict and prohibit Airbnb’s activities.
But now the industry may be encouraging a new tactic: inciting fear of child predators.
“With a revolving door of strangers coming and going from short-term rental properties, tools like sex offender lists are becoming obsolete,” wrote Stacie Rumenap, president of the nonprofit Stop Child Predators, in a guest column last March in the Knox News in Knoxville, Tennessee. “There is no safeguard in place to stop a child predator from renting an Airbnb property next door.”
At the time, Tennessee lawmakers were considering whether to forbid cities across the state from regulating short-term rentals. Rumenap wrote that if the legislation passed, “the term ‘Stranger Danger’ will take on a whole new meaning for parents in Tennessee as the community fabric of neighborhoods across the state will be fractured and local schools, parents and children will have to contend with more complete strangers in their neighborhoods.”
Tennessee was not the only battle in Stop Child Predators’ war against short-term rentals. Throughout 2018 and into 2019, the group has published nearly identical op-eds and letters to the editor in Miami and Washington, D.C., and participated in anti-Airbnb campaigns in Los Angeles, Boston and San Diego. Starting in June 2018, the group’s Facebook page dedicated itself almost exclusively to supporting local efforts to restrict short-term rentals. In May 2019 alone, Stop Child Predators posted more than two dozen advertisements related to legislation in Hawaii that would loosen the state’s existing regulations and allow more Airbnb units to come onto the market.
“How would you feel,” the group writes on its page about the Hawaii bill, “if you are a parent of young children, about your kids playing outside in the cul-de-sac, riding bikes or playing ball when you have no idea who is renting out the place next door and have no real way of finding out?”
Grassroots Or Astroturf?
Many of the advertisements and other written materials produced by Stop Child Predators have a striking resemblance to the messaging that the hotel industry uses in its own efforts to restrict the operations of Airbnb.
“Commercial landlords are using Airbnb to rent out multiple residential properties year-round, just like a hotel, while avoiding regulation and taxes,” writes the AHLA on the “Illegal Hotels” page of its website.
“Commercial landlords are increasingly using short-term rental sites like Airbnb to rent out multiple residential properties year-round, just like a hotel, while avoiding safeguards designed to protect patrons and the surrounding community,” writes Stop Child Predators on its “Special Projects” page.
The AHLA, whose members include Marriott, Hyatt, the Four Seasons and Red Roof Inn, has a history of carrying out lobbying efforts using nonprofit organizations. In 2017, The New York Times published an internal document laying out the AHLA’s strategy for fending off Airbnb. In the document, the AHLA admitted that it had “stood up” a group called AirbnbWATCH to gather negative stories about short-term rentals.
Similarly, the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2015 that a group called Neighbors for Overnight Oversight was also an AHLA-funded “astroturf” group. Though the group is now defunct, its website redirects to AirbnbWATCH.
“When businesses face major threats that could potentially harm their whole industry, these kinds of ‘grassroots’ campaigns start to happen in a pretty serious way,” Edward Walker, a University of California, Los Angeles, sociology professor told the Center for Public Integrity in 2015. Stop Child Predators and AirbnbWATCH both tweet using a number of phrases featured in AHLA press releases, including “commercial landlords” and “revolving door of strangers.”
The AHLA did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article.
Stop Child Predators has also been linked to corporate lobbying efforts in the past. According to a 2011 Mother Jones investigation, one of the group’s earliest lobbying efforts was in support of “Jessica’s Law,” legislation that requires sex offenders to be monitored by GPS. At the time, Rumenap was on the advisory board of Omnilink Systems, a major vendor of the “offender monitoring” devices. Mother Jones reported that Omnilink would have earned up to $20 per person per day for every sex offender subject to the law if monitored using Omnilink’s equipment. Omnilink was also listed as a corporate partner of Stop Child Predators at the time.
Though the group’s website features a “donate” button, its most recent tax filing noted that it received just 9.6% of its revenue from the public. The source of its remaining income is not specified.
Stop Child Predators did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article.
Regulating Airbnb Is Unlikely To Make Children Safer
Regardless of Stop Child Predators’ links to the AHLA, it’s worth considering the group’s argument on the merits: Would restricting Airbnb really make children safer?
Even a cursory look at the evidence indicates that it would not.
While child sexual abuse remains alarmingly common — up to 5% of boys and 12% of girls experience abuse before turning 18 — only 7% is committed by strangers or acquaintances. The vast majority is perpetrated by friends (often minors themselves), family members or authority figures such as teachers or coaches.
And when it comes to kidnappings, “stranger danger” is even rarer: In 2011, just 105 children were abducted by adults they didn’t know in the entire United States. Considering that more than 200,000 children are reported missing each year, strangers represent a tiny portion of the danger posed to children in the United States.
“Research on child sexual abuse does not support these concerns,” said Sandy Rozek, the communications director for the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws. “Extensive research has documented that child sexual abuse risk overwhelmingly comes from individuals that children know, not strangers.”
While it is true that people accused of abusing children have done so in houses rented on Airbnb, they have also used hotel rooms and, of course, their own homes. Airbnb says it performs limited background checks on its users, but the AHLA does not appear to recommend or require that its members perform any background checks on their customers.
Perhaps the oddest argument Stop Child Predators has made is that it opposes only “commercial landlords” but has no interest in preventing individuals from renting out their own homes or spare bedrooms using Airbnb. This stance is identical to that of the AHLA but inconsistent with the organization’s own messaging about neighborhoods becoming a “revolving door of strangers.” If, as the group argues, Airbnb cannot prevent sexual predators from renting rooms through its platform, this concern would apply regardless of whether homeowners or commercial landlords controlled the property.
While Airbnb is just as profit-maximizing as the hotel industry and has carried out its own lobbying efforts to protect its business model, the predator argument may represent a new low in the debate over short-term rental regulations. There may be legitimate reasons to regulate Airbnb, but “stranger danger” is a dubious one.