Fake News, Anecdata, and Things that Feel True

I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon at the Hilton Airport Conference Center (steps from the light rail station!), attending the Washington State Wire’s first-ever Re–Wire conference, where I was on a panel with WSW founder Jim Boldt, TVW president Renee Radcliffe Sinclair, and Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen. The topic: Polarization, fake news, and the future of media. The topic was way too big for four people to handle in 45 minutes, obviously, so I spent my 10 minutes or so (gently) pushing back against the notion that newspapers are going to save us (they aren’t) and the idea that local news consumers can’t tell the difference between “real” news and “fake” news. Boldt, in particular, seemed sold on this notion, claiming that nearly 9 in 10 news stories we read are generated by artificial intelligence. I find that number highly implausible, simply because local coverage is obviously generated by human beings; you can follow their bylines and see them in the flesh if you go to a community meeting or hang out at city hall. It could be that what he  meant is that nearly 9 out of 10 things that are posted online, or 9 out of 10 things that are posted on Facebook are AI-generated, but that’s a different problem than “why there isn’t much reliable local news.”

At the local level, I argued, the problem isn’t so much that there’s “fake news” (Nextdoor and your neighborhood Facebook group excepted), but that the interpretations of the news that does get reported are increasingly polarized. (Maybe this happens more in Seattle, where an army of newly minted socialists swarms my Twitter feed every time I sound too skeptical about a policy they support, than it does in, say, Tacoma or Kent). A neutral headline like “Rents increase for fourth quarter” will be spun as “excessive regulations force landlords to avoid poverty by increasing rents” by those on one end of the spectrum and as “greedy landlords bleed tenants dry” by those on the other. The problem arises, I said, when media who are deeply invested in one perspective being true dispense with fact-checking and rely on anecdata and alternative facts (or seem to eschew fact-checking altogether) to support their preordained conclusions.* For example, former mayoral candidate Cary Moon insisted, in the Stranger, that “hot money” flowing “out of China” was one of the main reasons housing prices have been going up in Seattle, and the paper, whose endorsement undoubtedly helped push Moon through the primary, did not dispute those claims.

Ultimately, Moon was never able to present evidence supporting her assertion that “hot money” was to blame for high housing prices, and brushed off evidence that refuted it with statements like, “We need to look at the data” and “Something’s going on.” But her supporters had already taken her initial sweeping claim—that foreign capital is a major reason housing prices are high in Seattle—and run with it. Foreign buyers snatching up property and leaving it vacant, creating an artificial market shortage? Feels true. And it’s certainly easier to blame “wealthy foreign investors” than have a complex and heated debate about Seattle’s restrictive zoning codes.

Recently, I’ve encountered the same resistance to numbers and reliance on anecdata in the debate over Airbnb regulations. (This week, the council passed new rules restricting most short-term rental operators, except those already operating in the downtown core, to two units total.) Opponents of services like Airbnb argue that they obviously increase housing prices by taking units off the market. And it feels true, especially when you happen to live near an Airbnb that used to be a long-term rental.  (As, it so happens, I do.) But when you confront them with facts, they often respond with anecdotes or observations, which are data points but are not the same thing as data.

Fact: There are, according to the website Inside Airbnb, a total of 426 units that meet the definition typically used by advocates who argue that short-term rentals are removing apartments from the long-term rental market. These units are whole units (that is, not rooms in someone’s house) that are frequently booked (too often to allow a long-term renter to live there), highly available (meaning they are listed as available to rent most or all of the time) and owned by people with more than one listing (meaning that they aren’t someone’s primary residence.) Even assuming that every single one of those Airbnb hosts would switch to being a full-time landlord (unlikely, given that, according to occupancy numbers, most hosts rent their units out only part-time), 426 units simply isn’t enough to influence rents one way or another in a city with hundreds of thousands of apartments and thousands more people moving here every month.

And yet anecdotes seem to win the day. “I know two people who have Airbnbs that they could be renting out as full-time units.” “We live in an era of landlords sitting on vacant properties.” “I watched two neighboring buildings get converted to full-time Airbnbs [in San Francisco] It’s a thing.” I mean—no one said it wasn’t “a thing.” There’s an important argument we should be having right now about revisiting ex-mayor Ed Murray’s decision to preserve restrictive single-family zoning across the city, but that’s such a difficult, fraught conversation. Easier to blame foreigners and rich people making a killing off their Airbnb empires. It feels true.

This is not to condemn people for basing their policy views on anecdotes from people they know, or their gut feelings. Everybody does that sometimes, especially when they lack full information. Instead, it’s a lament that there aren’t enough local media sources with the time or inclination to challenge assumptions that feel true—rent control will lower rents citywide because my rent won’t go up anymore; offering homeless people a bed in a crowded shelter will work because a shelter is obviously better than a tent—by presenting facts that are true.

* I should say here that I have my own biases—I’m pro-housing,  favor moving people over moving cars, and oppose punitive approaches to crimes of poverty and addiction—but I’ve changed my mind on issues plenty of times when the facts have pointed in a different direction than I thought they did. But this is usually in favor of a more nuanced position (it turns out some kinds of involuntary treatment do work) rather than a polar opposite extreme view (addicted people should be dragged off the streets and thrown into hospitals against their will.)

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Council Passes Short-Term Rental Tax, Puts Airbnb Regs on Ice Until After Thanksgiving

Council members Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson, on opposite sides of the short-term rental debate.

After several hours of discussion and a number of convoluted parliamentary procedures, the city council voted this afternoon to impose a new tax on people and businesses that provide short-term rental housing through online platforms like Airbnb—$14 per night for an entire home, and $8 a night when the rental is a single room in a larger residence. They did not resolve a key question about the underlying legislation, which would limit each short-term rental operator to just two units, down from an unlimited number today—namely, how many existing units would be exempt from the new requirements. (The legislation, as written, would exempt existing short-term rental units in parts of downtown, Lower Queen Anne, South Lake Union, and some units on First and Capitol Hill.) Council member Rob Johnson argued that it made little sense to adopt the tax without knowing how many rental units it would apply to (and therefore how much revenue it could generate); others, including council member Kirsten Harris-Talley, argued that delaying the vote could give lobbyists for companies like Airbnb time to pressure  community groups into supporting their preferred version of the legislation.

Ultimately, the council put off, for at least two weeks, several amendments that would raise or lower the number of existing short-term rental units that would be exempt from the two-unit restriction. On one end of the revenue-vs.-regulation axis, Johnson suggested exempting all existing short-term rental units from the new two-unit limit; on the other, council members Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien proposed requiring short-term rental operators who currently rent out several or many units to reduce their rental stock to two or less, with no location-based exemptions. (O’Brien, along with Sally Bagshaw, also offered a middle-ground amendment that would restrict the area in which short-term rental operators could continue to have more than two units to a small area of downtown).

The big-picture question today, as it has been since the city began discussing how to regulate short-term rentals a couple of years ago, was whether short-term rentals remove affordable housing units from circulation in sufficient quantities to drive up housing prices. Advocates argue that they do, but come armed mostly with anecdotes, not data—for every story about a person who got priced out of their old apartment only to see it turned into an Airbnb, there’s one about a homeowner who was able to pay her mortgage by turning her kid’s old room into short-term lodging for a few days every month. The point is—we just don’t know, and arguments that rely on anecdote and correlation-causation fallacies (2,000 people had to move last year because they couldn’t pay their rent and the number of Airbnbs increased; therefore, Airbnbs caused the displacement) aren’t convincing.

For one thing: The total supply of housing in the city has increased faster than the number of short-term rental units—an important factor for people making supply-side arguments against short-term rentals to consider. For another: Many Airbnbs are rooms in people’s homes, and there’s little evidence to suggest that people who want to rent their spare room out a few nights a month would be just equally eager to take on a full-time roommate if Airbnb were not an option. (The difference between a tourist who comes home late at night and a roommate who’s always underfoot is self-explanatory). And for still another: Airbnbs serve the same function as hotels; that’s who the company is competing against. Shutting down Airbnb or dramatically reducing the number of short-term rentals in Seattle would only increase demand for hotel rooms—and hotels are single-purpose buildings that can’t be easily adapted to serve as permanent rental housing if the economy slows or demand for hotel rooms dries up.

Full disclosure: I stay in Airbnbs almost exclusively, whenever I go to another city where I don’t have friends or family I can stay with. I also live in a building where one of the three rental units is an unregulated Airbnb with random people coming and going at all hours of the day and night. Having seen the short-term rental from at least two angles (and talked to plenty of homeowners who rent out rooms in their houses for extra cash), I think they should be taxed and regulated, but not run out of town. As someone who likes to hit the road every chance I get, my options are generally: Airbnb, or chain motel by the freeway. And when travelers like me stay at chain hotels near highways, or even at corporate hotels in the parts of town where such amenities tend to concentrate (downtown; near convention centers), our money goes to Hilton and Starbucks (or Motel Six and Bucky’s), not local boutiques and coffee shops.