Jack Worth began renting out rooms to tourists on Airbnb for all the usual reasons: wanting to show off his city, wanting to help others, and the chance to learn a little extra cash. But according to Emerson College in Boston, where the sophomore studies, there was one key problem – he does not actually own his dorm room.
"Really the idea just came from the combination of understanding where Emerson is located in the city, and it being in such a heavily-desired neighborhood, and the thought of how I could make a little bit of extra money," Mr. Worth told the Boston Globe.
Worth faces $150 in fines and a hearing with the school board, as both Emerson's administration and Airbnb have said what the student described as entrepreneurship went too far, reported the Boston Globe's Steve Annear.
It could be a strike against what some have labelled the "sharing economy," as it hardens the lines around what a person can own, and therefore share. The debate playing out from Boston to Berlin is striving to balance safety for neighborhoods with protection for law and order, coupled with what a petition by Worth's peers calls "honest, entrepreneurial endeavor."
It is not the first such "endeavor" to try its wings in Boston. In 2015 the city banned the Baltimore-based app, Haystack, which would have enabled drivers to share access to the scarce parking of Boston's streets. Based on a 20th-century court case, however, the city decided that public streets – maintained with public money for public use – cannot be traded for money via 21st-century technology.
Several attempts to take Airbnb to the next level have made news lately, suggesting that borders are being drawn for the entrepreneurial ventures. Even when home ownership is unquestionably in the hands of the Airbnb host, local governments want to regulate any endeavor that creates significant profit. With an estimated 53 million – or one in three – Americans participating in a shared economy through Airbnb, Uber, and a growing number of smaller companies, the public's stake in how they run is increasing, as The Christian Science Monitor's Max Lewontin noted in December.
Although the apps and new technologies they employ to handle logistics originate in the nebulous virtual world, when their influence extends to brick-and-mortar commodities, more traditional laws apply.
"The major disruptive innovation of the sharing economy that has allowed it to create opportunities for consumers and for producers is that these firms don’t depend on the employer and employee relationship," Matt Mitchell, an economist at George Mason University's anti-regulatory Mercatus Center told The Christian Science Monitor. "They’re simply platforms that connect consumers with producers."
Advocates for a "sharing economy" use technology to profit from a person's possessions in new ways, but first, one must determine who actually possesses the commodity being shared. Emerson College, while refusing to comment on Worth's case because of privacy concerns, told BostonInno that students sign a contract barring any further rental agreements, and in this case, the college owns the dorm room.
Worth's friends and supporters are describing the episode as an attempt at entrepreneurship, using language that hints at a person's economic rights in the sharing economy.
Not everyone agrees, however, and some on Twitter dismiss his plight as a collegiate exploit that ignores the safety concerns cited by the school.