A Bizarre Media Hit Piece on Airbnb

MLive implies service was complicit in shooting at short-term rental

If a shooting takes place at an apartment complex — which, unfortunately, is not uncommon — should government officials start talking about ways to ban apartment complexes? Or, say a crime was committed at an apartment building. Would it make sense to ask whether a website that renters use to find apartments was involved or complicit in the crime?

The answer is: Of course not. Either of these connections would tenuous and far-fetched, yet a recent article in MLive follows a similar logic. It attempts to link a tragic story about an illegally operated business and illegally rented home to the debate about how to regulate short-term rental services and companies like Airbnb.

The piece, “Fatal shooting puts spotlight on short-term rentals in Saginaw,” lays out the story. Someone bought a home in Saginaw less than a year ago, advertised it on Facebook, saying — falsely — it was an Airbnb rental property, and illegally rented it out on a daily basis. On May 3, a man died at the house from gunshot wounds.

The house was not listed or registered with the popular short-term rental website. Aside from the owner’s false claims, Airbnb has no connection whatsoever to the house or what took place there.

The article, nevertheless, devotes several paragraphs to profiling the company, describing how it works and listing several criticisms lodged against it. As it notes, some people argue that the practice of short-term rentals “allows for unsafe or uncertified lodgings,” causes gentrification and is a net drain on the economy. What any of this has to do with the shooting in Saginaw is not explained. The article goes on to describe some of the current debates about regulating short-term rental properties, such as restricting Airbnb rentals.

MLive did a second installment on this story, interviewing a Bay City resident who speculates that she had difficulty finding a new rental because of Airbnb. This is hard to believe, seeing as there are only 38 Airbnb rentals in all of Bay City. In the same article, moreover, a city commissioner says there are hundreds more vacant properties than Airbnb rentals in the city, and the 38 are no cause for concern.

Nevertheless, the article says Airbnb is proliferating in Bay City and beginning to do so in Saginaw, too. Yes, there are Airbnb rentals in Saginaw: a mere eight. But the article also repeats many of the same criticisms lobbed at Airbnb in the first installment, including twice repeating the idea that some people think Airbnb causes gentrification.

If not clear by now, let’s be blunt: The MLive article about the shooting is thoroughly misleading. It inappropriately tries to connect a fatal shooting to legal questions and criticisms surrounding one particular company that had nothing to do with the fatality. It’s hard to describe it as anything other than a ridiculous stretch.

No regulation or restriction on Airbnb or short-term rentals in general would have prevented this tragedy. The homeowner would have simply ignored them, just like he ignored the city ordinances in place when the shooting happened. It would be foolish to believe that a homeowner who is willing to violate existing city ordinances would stop violating new ones aimed at Airbnb. It would be foolish to believe that the people who rented the home would not have found it on Facebook if there were different city ordinances in place.

The Michigan Legislature is debating a bill that would allow municipalities to regulate short-term rentals but would prohibit them from banning them outright. Some local officials and their lobbying associations are adamantly opposed to this legislation, as they want to retain this power. They would no doubt be interested in using a story like this to buttress their position that local municipalities should be able to ban short-term rentals, but like these articles, that’ll be a ridiculous stretch.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.