Inside Airbnb’s ‘Guerrilla War’ Against Local Governments
"READ MY LIPS: We want to pay taxes," Chris Lehane, Airbnb's global head of public policy, told the nation's mayors in 2016. In the years since, the home-sharing site has repeated the declaration in press releases, op-eds, emails, and on billboards. On its website, Airbnb says it is "democratizing revenue by generating tens of millions of new tax dollars for governments all over the world."
Palm Beach County tax collector Anne Gannon wasn't surprised. "We knew we were going to get sued," she says. "That's what they do all over the country. It's their mode of operation."
Gannon has been cajoling, threatening, and ordering Airbnb to collect taxes for its hosts since 2014. Five years, three lawsuits, and millions in unpaid occupancy taxes later, she's still trying. "All we want them to do is pay their taxes," she says. "They absolutely don't want to pay their taxes the way we want to collect them. That's the bottom line."
Similar dramas are playing out around the country. From Nashville to New Orleans to Honolulu, Airbnb is battling local officials over requests to collect occupancy taxes and ensure that the properties listed on its site comply with zoning and safety rules. In the past five months alone, the company has spent nearly $1 million to overturn regulations in San Diego and has sued Boston, Miami, and Palm Beach County over local ordinances that require Airbnb to collect taxes or remove illegal listings. Elsewhere, Airbnb has fought city officials over regulations aimed at preventing homes from being transformed into de facto hotels and requests from tax authorities for more specific data about hosts and visits.