TIME Cuba

Airbnb Heads to Cuba in Major U.S. Business Expansion

A home in Havana, Cuba, April 1, 2015
Desmond Boylan—AP A home in Havana, Cuba, on April 1, 2015

Airbnb will allow American travelers to book lodging in Cuba starting Thursday

(HAVANA) — The popular online home-rental service Airbnb will allow American travelers to book lodging in Cuba starting Thursday in the most significant U.S. business expansion on the island since the declaration of detente between the two countries late last year.

For a half-century, the U.S. trade embargo has blocked such businesses from entering the Cuban market. In January, however, the Obama administration loosened a series of restrictions on U.S. business in an attempt to encourage the growth of the island’s small private sector.

Airbnb searches for “Cuba” will now turn up more than 1,000 properties across the island, with 40 percent in Havana and the rest in tourist destinations such as Cienfuegos a few hours away on the southern coast. The company has been sending teams of representatives to Cuba for three months to sign up home owners, and plans to expand steadily in coming months.

“We believe that Cuba could become one of Airbnb’s biggest markets in Latin America,” said Kay Kuehne, regional director for Airbnb, the website and mobile app that allows users to book rooms in more than 1 million private homes around the world. “We are actually plugging into an existing culture of micro-enterprise in Cuba. The hosts in Cuba have been doing for decades what we just started doing seven years ago.”

One of the most developed and important elements of Cuba’s entrepreneurial sector is a network of thousands of privately owned rooms and houses for tourists. Starting in the post-Soviet economic crisis of the 1990s as homey, bed and breakfast-style alternatives to Cuba’s generally grim state-run hotels, “casas particulares,” or private homes, have expanded into an industry with options ranging from small apartments in central Havana to multi-room beach houses with top-notch food and maid service.

The Airbnb announcement is the latest in a series of U.S. business moves into Cuba. In February, New Jersey-based IDT Corp. and Cuban state telecoms firm ETECSA agreed to connect phone calls from the United States directly to Cuba. Previously, they were routed through third countries such as Italy and Spain.

Netflix and MasterCard have also unblocked their services in Cuba, but only a handful of islanders have connections fast enough to stream Netflix, and most credit-card issuers still prohibit transactions from Cuba, making MasterCard’s move largely symbolic so far.

The Airbnb move could be the most significant development in terms of putting money in the pockets of entrepreneurs across the island and bolstering them in a stagnant state-run economy — leading goals for the Obama administration in warming relations with Cuba.

“I think this is going to help our business prosper, to definitely improve, not just private business, but everything here,” said Israel Rivero, who owns an immaculately renovated, pre-war apartment in central Havana. He charges $25 a night per room, but the price will go to $30 on Airbnb to cover fees and currency exchange costs.

Kuehne said Airbnb’s plans had been welcomed by Cuban and U.S. authorities. Cuba has been wrestling with how to accommodate a surge of travelers since the announcement of detente. Trips to the island have been up nearly 20 percent in recent months, mostly by non-U.S. travelers, and many hotels are fully booked, particularly the few able to offer service close to international standards.

For the time being, non-U.S. travelers will not be able to use Airbnb.

Because of continuing restrictions under the U.S. embargo, the company’s Cuba listing will only be available to U.S. travelers visiting under one of 12 U.S.-government approved categories of legal travel, ranging from professional research to religious activities.

While virtually all U.S. travel to Cuba previously required individual licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department, the January changes essentially shift it to an honor system by allowing travelers to fill out a form asserting they are going for one of the approved purposes.

A major drawback for the Cuban private lodging business has been the difficulty of renting from overseas on an island with one of the world’s lower rates of Internet penetration and a constantly malfunctioning phone system. While dozens of websites such as TripAdvisor have listings for lodgings, most only provide phone numbers or email addresses for owners instead of the quick online booking and guaranteed reservations that Airbnb will offer, as it does in more than 190 countries.

“Our plan is to make it substantially easier,” Kuehne said.

While that sentiment holds for travelers, owners still have to grapple with the lack of access to the Internet across the island. Most will have to turn to pricey state-run Internet centers or hotel lobbies to check on reservations. And with much of the international banking system off-limits to Cubans due to U.S. sanctions, owners will depend on friends or business associates to receive payments from Airbnb in non-U.S. bank accounts.

Collin Laverty, owner of Cuba Educational Travel, one of the largest firms organizing group tours to Cuba, said home owners have already been investing in amenities such as central air conditioning and improved water pressure in order to be able to charge far more than $25 a night for basic service.

“You’re starting to see places that can compete with three- and four-star hotels,” Laverty said.

TIME politics

San Francisco Lawmakers Propose Tougher Restrictions on Airbnb Rentals

Airbnb
Airbnb

The proposal would take a trailblazing regulation measure passed last year and make it more restrictive

At a meeting of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, a local lawmaker returned to an issue that sparked long and contentious hearings in 2014: regulation of the city’s short-term rentals facilitated by Airbnb and similar companies.

“This law is a mess,” David Campos, one of the 11 board members, said of a measure passed last year that legalized short-term rentals. “It’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up. And we need to clean it up as soon as possible.”

Campos introduced legislation that would place stricter limitations on how often people can rent out rooms or homes, putting a “hard cap” of 90 days on every property, regardless of whether the host is present. It would also require companies such as Airbnb to share data about rentals, ban rentals in certain neighborhoods that have been zoned for no commercial use and give disturbed neighbors—like ones living next door to people who rent out units illegally—the right to sue for damages.

A spokesperson for Airbnb said in a statement to TIME that the new proposal is just creating tension over an issue that was settled in 2014.

“Elected officials spent three years debating all aspects of this issue before passing comprehensive legislation, but some folks still don’t think you should be able to occasionally share the home in which you live,” said Christopher Nulty. “We should all be striving to make the law work but these ad hoc rules and this new bill just make things more confusing.”

Campos’ measure has been co-sponsored by two other members of the board.

Under the law passed last year, residents in San Francisco are allowed to rent out their properties an unlimited amount of days if the host is present, while there is a 90-day cap on un-hosted rentals. The different limits were aimed at maximizing the economic potential for residents who depend on sites like Airbnb for income, while making it impossible for landlords to put rental units on those sites full-time. Before the law passed, all short-term rentals were technically illegal; rentals shorter than 30 days were banned.

MORE: 5 Things You Never Knew About the Sharing Economy

The problem, Campos says, is that the city planning commission, which is charged with enforcing the law, says there’s no method of determining when hosts are at home sleeping in their own beds, meaning they cannot monitor whether people are respecting the limits. Campos called the law a “paper tiger” that is “unenforceable” because it has no teeth.

Local lawmakers have pushed for limits on short-term rentals to make sure the sharing economy doesn’t cannibalize existing housing stock. “The concern is you take your unit off the market,” says Supervisor Jane Kim, who supports a 90-day cap.

In recent years, San Francisco has been in the midst of a housing crisis, with the amount of people wanting to live in the city exceeding the apartments that are available—which has sent rental prices skyrocketing. The law was partly aimed at stopping landlords from taking much-needed units off the market because renting them out every night on sites like Airbnb was more valuable than collecting a monthly check. It also legitimized a business popular with tourists and locals.

Kim points out that 90 days per year breaks down to about a week per month, or could be the length of a summer when a college student is out of town. It’s sufficient for what one might consider “regular” hosts who use Airbnb, she says. “If you’re doing more than 90 days, you’re running a business,” she says. Kim believes that people in that camp should apply for a bed-and-breakfast license, which requires hosts to meet more requirements like installing exit signs.

With the aim of making oversight more feasible, Campos’ proposal would require platforms like Airbnb to give the city data about how often properties are being rented through their sites. “Without that data, there’s simply no way of knowing,” Campos says. He adds that Airbnb has responded to previous requests for such data by demanding the city subpoena them and notes that Airbnb has fought such subpoenas in states like New York.

Under the current law, which went into effect in February, all hosts must register with the city before listing a property on a site like Airbnb. Campos says that as of two weeks ago only a few dozen residents have registered, while there are “thousands” of rooms and units being listed on short-term rental sites. In an attempt to incentivize compliance with the law, the proposal would also fine hosting platforms that list unregistered units in San Francisco to the tune of $1,000 per day.

“All of us support short-term rentals,” Campos said of the board members during Tuesday’s meeting. “We know that short-term rentals are part of San Francisco, that they are here to stay … That said, I think that those of us that have been talking about this believe there should be reasonable, fair regulation of this industry,” he continued. “The law that was passed last year does not constitute what we would like to see.”

Read next: Baby, You Can Drive My Car, and do My Errands, and Rent My Stuff…

MONEY Warren Buffett

Airbnb Will Let You Stay in Warren Buffett’s Childhood Home

Warren Buffett's childhood home
Airbnb

Assuming you’re a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder.

One lucky Berkshire Hathaway shareholder will get to spend a weekend in Warren Buffett’s childhood home, Airbnb announced Tuesday.

The contest comes after the legendary investor and Berkshire CEO said room rental service Airbnb was a good option for company shareholders looking to travel to Omaha for an annual shareholder meeting.


The Buffett contest is only open to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. Anyone interested has to do the following:

Provide your name and address and a few creative answers to the following questions:

(a) What are you most excited to experience in Omaha? (200 words max)
(b) What are you most looking forward to at the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting? (200 words max)
(c) What’s your favorite Airbnb experience? (200 words max)
(d) What’s next on your travel bucket list? (200 words max)

While a stay in Omaha, Neb. may not seem like much of a travel weekend to some, for fans of the Oracle of Omaha it’s akin staying a night in the Lincoln Bedroom. No word on whether people staying in the house will be required to stick to the Buffett diet, largely made up of Utz Potato Sticks, ice cream and Coca-Cola products.

This post originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME Travel

Sleep 9,000 Feet in the Air in This Cable Car Hotel Room

Airbnb
Airbnb

The luxurious cable car room is only being offered as part of a contest

Airbnb is typically known for letting people rent out their apartments or extra rooms. But here’s an Airbnb rental that’s literally in the air. Through a special promotion, the company is offering an opportunity to stay in a converted cable car suspended 9,000 feet above ground.

Located in the Courchevel ski resort in the French Alps, this cable car has been converted into a one-bathroom, two-bedroom apartment capable of accommodating up to four people. Once on board, the high-flying luxury rental ends its journey at La Saulire, the highest point in Courchevel, elevation 9,000 feet. It sounds like it could be the most exciting—or most frightening—night of your life, depending on how comfortable you are with heights…or how windy it happens to be.

For now, the space isn’t available for rent: It’s only being offered as part of a contest on Airbnb. Anyone can enter from now until Feb. 25. The lucky winners will also be treated to other amenities, including snowmobile transportation and plenty of wine and fondue, as well as dinner.

Airbnb doesn’t specify what will happen to the space after the contest ends. If it’s anything like most Airbnb apartments, it’ll probably be off the market for a few weeks while one of the owner’s buddies crashes there.

[h/t Fast Company]

Airbnb

This article originally appeared on FWx.

More from FWx:

TIME Advertising

Watch AirBnB’s Touching Berlin Wall Anniversary Story

The Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989

You know communism is really dead when the Berlin Wall is being used to advertise AirBnB, the site that allows people to rent out their homes and apartments. But the 75-second ad, which marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is surprisingly touching.

Wall and Chain” is the story of an old man, Jörg, who served as a guard on the West side of the wall many years ago. He’s haunted by his experience, until his daughter Cathrine takes him back to Berlin to visit his old home. When they meet their AirBnB host, Kai, they find out that he was once a guard on the East side of the wall, and Jörg is finally able to let go of his past. And while few other companies saw an advertising opportunity in the dark past of a divided city, AirBnB was able to turn history into a heartwarming animated short.

(MORE: See an interactive timeline of the Berlin wall)

 

MONEY sharing economy

New York Attorney General Says Airbnb Is Making Millions on Illegal Listings

Airbnb
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

A report from the state Attorney general claims Airbnb has made $40 million on illegal rentals, and that 70% of Airbnb's New York City listings violate the law.

If there’s one thing that divides New Yorkers, it’s Airbnb. As New York Magazine’s definitive feature on the do-it-yourself hotel service pointed out, the city is split between those who see Airbnb as an innocent way for New Yorkers to transform their overpriced housing assets into some extra scratch, and those who blame the company for turning their apartment buildings into unregulated crashpads for rag-tag out-of-towners.

On Thursday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman provided the anti-Airbnb camp with more fodder when he accused Airbnb of making $40 million on illegal listings over the past three and a half years. As The New York Post writes, that number is based on a new report from Schneiderman’s office that also estimates 70% of Airbnb’s New York City listings are illegal.

Under New York state law, renters are allowed to sublet their apartment on Airbnb (assuming their lease permits it), but must be physically present while subtenants are there. Conventional landlords, meanwhile, are barred from leasing an apartment for fewer than 30 days — precisely to prevent residential buildings from being turned into unregulated hotels. The Attorney General’s report, which looked at Airbnb bookings from the start of 2010 to June of this year, says the vast majority of the site’s listing are not private citizens monetizing a spare room, but lessors renting out multiple apartments at a time.

Specifically, the Attorney General’s office found more than 100 landlords who used Airbnb to rent out more than 10 apartments each. These owners alone accounted for 47,103 reservations and took in almost $60 million in revenue. One particularly ambitious landlord accounted for 272 unique listings and made $6.8 million off 3,024 reservations. Schneiderman also complained that Airbnb users rarely, if ever, pay the city’s 14.7% hotel occupancy tax and the site has not tried to collect that tax from any of the transactions reviewed by his office.

Concerns over illegal listings are not a new issue for Airbnb. In September, New York Magazine reported on the ongoing fight between the company and New York State Senator Liz Krueger over regulations for the nascent apartment sharing industry. While Airbnb argues that their service enables average folks to pay their rent, the Attorney General’s office has countered that the site’s average “power-user” is making $500,000 a year renting at least 10 different residencies. “[They’re] hardly making ends meet,” a spokesman for the office told the magazine.

Airbnb responded to the report by urging regulators against overreaction. “We should not deny thousands of New Yorkers the chance to share their homes, pay their bills and stay in the city they love,” said the company in statement to the Post. “We need to work together on some sensible rules that stop bad actors and protect regular people who simply want to share the home in which they live.”

 

 

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 24

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Because of America’s unique relationship with Liberia, we have an obligation to help fight the Ebola outbreak there.

By James Ciment in Slate

2. Medical research often doesn’t account for different ethnicities, and underrepresented groups suffer.

By Estaban G. Burchard in Nature

3. One way to head off sexual violence in professional sports: start with high school coaches.

By Libby Nelson in Vox

4. Beyond the sharing economy: Is “reputation” the next important currency?

By Heather Schlegel on CNN

5. Powerful protests over climate change target corporations – and new leadership is needed to restore faith in capitalism.

By Judith Samuelson in the Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME privacy

Airbnb Sued by Group of Users in New York City for Breach of Privacy

Airbnb Said to Be Raising Funding At $10 Billion Valuation
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images The Airbnb application and logo are displayed on an Apple iPhone in this arranged photograph in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2014

The company released user data to New York City authorities investigating suspected violations of housing and rental laws

Around 25 people with apartments listed on the online accommodation-sharing website Airbnb are suing the company to prevent what they claim is a breach of their privacy.

Calling themselves “New Yorkers Making Ends Meet in the Sharing Economy,” the group filed a lawsuit against Airbnb in the state supreme court on Tuesday to prevent the firm sharing their private information with state attorney general Eric Schneiderman.

A source familiar with the case told Mashable that Airbnb furnished the attorney general with information on 107 of its New York City users including payment details, hosts and listing IDs as well as their names and contact information.

The release on Tuesday was the first under an agreement between the two parties reached in May, in which the company agreed to provide anonymous information about thousands of hosts in order to investigate suspected violations of the local rental law.

City authorities requested more information on some 130 users, but Airbnb declined to provide details of those who had filed lawsuits until the case was resolved.

“We will not take action with data from hosts who have previously filed suit until the court makes a decision and we will respect the court’s decision,” Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas said, after clarifying that the users whose data had been subpoenaed were notified by the company.

Airbnb had successfully fought the city’s previous demand in court, which asked for unfettered access to data on thousands of users. This was followed by the updated agreement and the transfer of the anonymous data.

[Mashable]

TIME legal

Airbnb Hands Over Data on 124 Hosts in New York City to the Authorities

Airbnb'S Value Estimated At $10 Billion After New Round Of Investments
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images The Airbnb app is displayed on a smartphone on April 21, 2014 in San Anselmo, California.

The New York attorney general is seeking those who “flagrantly" misused the online platform

Airbnb has announced that it is handing over the personal information of 124 past and present hosts to the New York attorney general.

The online accommodation company said on Friday that the vast majority of the hosts were no longer on its site and the total is “far less than 1%” of its hosting community in the Big Apple.

“Nothing about these hosting profiles suggests [the attorney general] is after anyone but individuals who may be flagrantly misusing our platform,” said David Hantman, head of global policy for Airbnb, in a blog post on Friday.

The New York City battle for user information began last year. Attorney general Eric Schneiderman sent the first subpoena in October, requesting data on Airbnb’s hosts for the previous three years. Airbnb resisted but also reiterated its commitment to cooperate with authorities and eliminate illegal hotels and guesthouses. The San Francisco–based company then wiped out more than 2,000 listings in April.

The recent release of personal data followed the New York attorney general’s second subpoena for hosts’ information in May. Airbnb agreed to hand over “anonymized data” for about 16,000 hosts in New York. The office of the attorney general would then have a year to review the information and draft a list of individuals who are subject to further investigation. This means it’s possible that additional requests for user information are made in the months to come.

Airbnb says it has already contacted the 124 hosts concerned about the matter.

MONEY Tech

6 Horrible Things the Sharing Economy Is Being Accused Of

A Lyft car drives along Powell Street on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Lyft, the ride-sharing company known for its iconic pink mustaches, is involved in what's called "Tech's Fiercest Rivalry" with competing service Uber.

You'd think that businesses that are part of something dubbed the "sharing economy" would play nice. Well, think again.

While sharing economy businesses such as Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, and TaskRabbit were created with the idea of connecting people and empowering individuals as entrepreneurs, they were also designed to disrupt existing business models. That process can be ugly, as it occasionally wreaks havoc not only on big industries like hotels and taxis, but also on how people make a living and where they can afford to live.

There’s an argument to be made that the sharing economy is not really about sharing at all. Rather, it’s a semi-regulated, tech-enabled, blatantly capitalistic peer-to-peer business model. Sure, it helps people earn a few bucks or get services cheaper than usual, but we must admit that the model can be brutally cut-throat in the way seemingly everything and everyone is monetized. Given such, it’s not all that surprising that sharing economy businesses are being blamed for some pretty nasty stuff lately. For example:

Sabotaging Each Other
The Wall Street Journal described the battle of ride-sharing competitors Uber and Lyft as “Tech’s Fiercest Rivalry” due to tactics such as giving cash bonuses (up to $1,000) to recruit drivers away from each other. In a particularly ugly turn, Lyft accused Uber of booking—then cancelling—more than 5,500 rides since last October, just to mess with Lyft drivers and the company in general. (Uber denied Lyft’s claims.)

Price Gouging
This summer, Uber agreed to limit surge pricing during natural disasters and emergencies, but that doesn’t mean its hated price hikes during peak demand have gone entirely away. Fans who attended a recent music festival in San Francisco were subjected to surge pricing that was five times the normal rate, meaning a short Uber ride through town cost hundreds of dollars, Valleywag reported.

Inviting Squatters and Scammers into Your Home
Following in the footsteps of an Airbnb host being disturbed by renters holding an orgy in his apartment, there’s the story of an Airbnb host being outraged by squatters who refused to leave (or pay) for their rental.

Wrecking the Housing Market
Critics say that Airbnb rentals turn homes and apartments into quasi-hotels, and landlords in desirable, touristy destinations such as San Francisco and Marfa, Texas are being accused of evicting long-term tenants so that units can be used as more lucrative short-term rentals. The sharing economy pioneer has also been linked to soaring rent and housing prices in general, and also the idea that the comfortable atmosphere in apartment buildings and entire neighborhoods is being destroyed by the presence of too many loud, unruly tourists.

Illegal Currency Trading
A group of taxi companies in India has accused Uber of violating local laws for credit card transactions. It is against the law for Indian citizens to conduct business in India using a foreign currency, and that’s what the group is saying is happening every time someone there uses Uber.

Ruining Wages, and Not Only for Taxi Drivers
Cab drivers are the ones who have been most up in arms about the way rideshare upstarts like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have been disrupting their livelihoods by wooing away customers. But the brutally competitive nature of these businesses and the sharing economy in general has been causing trouble for other workers as well—like Uber and Lyft drivers themselves.

Professional UberX drivers supposedly earn $90,000 per year in New York City, but that figure doesn’t factor in many business expenses, including parking, gas, insurance, or the maintenance of one’s vehicle. And as rideshare companies engaged in price wars recently, some drivers have seen their wages cut significantly.

The dark side of the sharing economy is that it commoditizes all sorts of skills, services, and workers overall, and puts downward pressure on how valuable they are. The recent changes at TaskRabbit, the peer-to-peer site where people can book (and offer to handle) outsourced chores, has resulted in something of a race to the bottom in terms of money people can earn, mostly because it has become more difficult to beat out the competition for gigs.

[UPDATE: TaskRabbit reached out to clarify that it recently adopted a minimum rate of $11.20 per hour for the tasks coordinated on its site. The company points out that the rate is much higher than any state’s minimum wage.]

In a vehemently pro-sharing economy column published this summer by the New York Times’ Tom Friedman—it was was more or less an extended interview with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky—Chesky envisioned a future in which people multitasked at several jobs rather than serving as employees of a single company. “You may have many jobs and many different kinds of income, and you will accumulate different reputations, based on peer reviews, across multiple platforms of people,” Chesky said. “You may start by delivering food, but as an aspiring chef you may start cooking your own food and delivering that and eventually you do home-cooked meals and offer a dining experience in your own home.”

This vision sorta makes it sound like one day we’ll all be TaskRabbits, hopping from gig to gig and competing against other taskers at every step. This is cause for concern. To quote a notable recent headline: “If TaskRabbit Is the Future of Employment, the Employed Are F***ed.” A New York Times story published this past weekend that followed the day-to-day existence of some sharing economy “microentrepreneurs” shows that this vision of the future has already arrived for many workers–and the reality is one of grim uncertainty and tough competition.

As for drivers operating taxis or rideshare cars, well, they have more to worry about than diminishing wages. Not long ago, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick made it clear that down the road, he expects that Uber will not employ any drivers at all. Instead, rides will be provided by self-driving cars. And presumably, all the people who would otherwise be drivers will have to jump into the scrum and compete with the rest of the rabbits for whatever work is available.

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