by Eric Boehm | Reason
A concerned, motherly voice pleads for your attention. Soft piano music plays. We see shots of a quiet neighborhood street in Anacostia, a traditionally black community on the eastern side of Washington, D.C.
“I was 5 years old when we moved to the neighborhood, but it doesn’t feel like the place I grew up or where I raised my children,” says the unnamed woman, whose grayed hair suggests that she’s old enough to be wise and trusted, even as her voice carries hints of youthful vigor worn down by the sadness of her story. Shots of her family photos. More sad music.
What has caused this woman so much pain? Commercial landlords using Airbnb, she says. They have evicted her neighbors from their homes without a care, knowing they can make more money by renting to strangers and tourists.
“We end up with higher rents and less affordable housing,” she says. “I’m tired of feeling like an outsider in my own neighborhood.”
Indeed, the woman in the ads is a stranger in Anacostia. And if her appearance, voice, and mannerisms seem like something out of central casting, it’s because they are. Because the woman in the ad is not a resident of Anacostia, but is an actress from New York City, NBC-4 reported Wednesday.
Share Better DC, the nonprofit connected to the hotel industry that is responsible for the ad, confirmed that she is an actress but claimed that the ad was intended to depict the real experiences D.C. residents have had with Airbnb in multiple neighborhoods, NBC-4 says.
Fittingly, the fake Anacostia resident who can’t believe how much her neighborhood has changed was outed by a real longtime Anacostia resident: Greta Fuller, who posted on Twitter that Airbnb has made her neighborhood a better place.
“Far too long has our community been labeled as a place not to visit, but through Airbnb people have found a gem and a host of great people living in Washington, D.C.,” Fuller wrote. That’s something, she added, that “no agency or entity has ever done for our community.”
The ad is intended to sway public support in favor of a bill that would put new limits on how property owners in Washington, D.C., can use services like Airbnb. Dozens of residents testified at a public hearing last week on the proposal to cap the number of days that homes could be rented through short-term rental services. There’s no timetable for a final city council vote on the bill.
Emily Cullum, a spokeswoman for the Travel Technology Association, a trade association that advocates for transparency and competition in the hospitality marketplace, told Reason that the ad makes it look like Share Better “couldn’t locate a resident with a real story to fit their anti-short term rental narrative, so they went ahead and made one up.”
“Short-term rentals help residents like Greta Fuller make ends meet while welcoming visitors to neighborhoods that hotels have shown no interest in servicing,” Cullum wrote in an email. “The D.C. City Council needs to recognize that corporate interests are using deceptive practices to wage war on D.C. residents who open their homes to travelers.”
In a broader way, this ad represents the opening of a new front in the ongoing war between the hotel industry and the room-sharing services that have cracked open the hospitality market.
As Reason reported last week, documents leaked from meetings of the American Hotel and Lodging Association show how national hotel lobbyists played a role in convincing some city and state governments to enact anti-Airbnb rules over the past year.
The next step, according to minutes of an AHLA gathering in November of last year, was to make the fight more personal—with ads like the one now running on Washington, D.C., area TV stations.
To build on their perceived successes in 2016, the AHLA outlined several strategies to implement in 2017. Among them: “Aggressively counter Airbnb’s ‘we’re just helping the middle-class make ends meet’ narrative with a wave of personal testimonials of consumer harm through a ‘My Neighborhood’ paid and social campaign.
In other words, expect more of this to be popping up in ads across the country, wherever Airbnb and hotel officials are clashing over residents’ right to do what they want on their own property. But the thing about “personal testimonials” is that they really only work when the person behind them is telling the truth.