Florida set to sanction Airbnb over West Bank policy

Florida is about to blacklist vacation rental home marketing giant Airbnb from state investment.

The Florida Cabinet’s State Board of Administration is set to sanction the vacation rental home marketing giant Airbnb Tuesday making it the first American company blacklisted from Florida investments over its policies toward doing business in Israel’s West Bank settlements.

The move is a response to Airbnb’s policy, begun in November, of not accepting listings from vacation rental homes owned by Jewish Israelis in the disputed West Bank territories of Judea and Samaria. The company’s policy cites what the company declares “historic and intense disputes between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Florida’s State Board of Administration is being asked to characterize that policy a part of the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is widely seen as anti-Semitic in origin and backing.

Florida Chief Investment Officer Ash Williams will request approval on Tuesday to update the Board’s “Global Governance Mandates” to add the San Francisco-based Airbnb as a “scrutinized” concern. (State statute governing the SBA defines “scrutinized companies” as those that “boycott Israel or engage in a boycott of Israel.’)

Board members Gov. Ron DeSantis and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis are on record as being sharply critical of Airbnb. The board’s third member is Attorney General Ashley Moody.

If the board takes action Tuesday it will do so without receiving any live defense from Airbnb, which is not expecting to attend. Airbnb General Counsel Robert Chestnut met with state officials Monday but is not planning to go to the meeting Tuesday. Two weeks ago he sent a lengthy defense letter to the state declaring that Airbnb has “unequivocally rejected the BDS movement.”

The BDS charge is one the company has long vehemently denied. Company officials, in policies posted online and in various statements, including Chestnut’s Jan. 17 letter to State Board of Administration Senior Corporate Government Analyst Tracy Stewart, insist that the company robustly does business in and with Israel, just not on the West Bank, and that it has no ties to or sympathy with the BDS movement. The company argues there is a critical distinction between its pro-Israel policies and its West Bank policy.

But opponents of the BDS movement have argued that Airbnb is splitting words. They charge that its West Bank policy is discriminatory because it does not ban listings from non-Jewish host property owners in the West Bank. Cities and towns across the country, including Surfside, Miami, and Bal Harbour already have formally condemned or sanctioned Airbnb, as has Illinois.

Tuesday’s proposed sanctioning is the last item of business on the State Board of Administration meeting, which follows the full Florida Cabinet meeting, set to start at 9 a.m.

Previously, Florida has declared three companies from Luxembourg, one from the United Kingdom, and one from Turkey, as scrutinized for being in violation of the state’s anti-BDS law.

Practically speaking, the proposed sanctioning of Airbnb is symbolic, at least for now. Scrutinized companies are corporations in which Florida is forbidden to invest. San Francisco-based Airbnb is privately held. So Florida investments are not possible anyway.

Still, Florida is one of Airbnb’s biggest markets in the world, and a state sanction can have reverberations in a business sector that has tough competition, including from similar internet platforms for vacation rental homes, notably HomeAway and its affiliated companies and brands VRBO and VacationRentals.com.

Airbnb has lobbied hard for goodwill and government support in Florida, including leading the business sector in developing partnerships with the state and various counties and cities to collect and remit taxes owed on vacation rental homes. Just Monday the company announced that in 2018 Airbnb had nearly doubled the amount of taxes it had paid to Florida and 40 counties, paying $89.5 million on behalf of 45,000 host properties.

Chestnut’s letter references those numbers and also references the company’s “Open Homes” program, which provided housing assistance during Florida’s hurricane disaster responses. “Airbnb values its relationship with the State of Florida and the Airbnb community in Florida,” Chestnut’s letter declares.

The company’s Nov. 19 policy statement reads, in part: “Airbnb is not boycotting Israel. Airbnb does not support the BDS movement, any boycott of Israel, or any boycott of Israeli companies. Our announcement affects approximately 200 listings in the West Bank and major US-based multinational hotel chains also do not offer accommodations in these areas. To be clear, our announcement does not apply to more than 20,000 listings in Israel — including in Jerusalem and Golan Heights — and hosts continue to share their places with travelers.”

However, the board’s materials declare that Airbnb’s West Bank policy as a “limitation of commerce within Israel or Israeli-controlled territories is covered by F.S. 215.4725(1)(a) which defines a “boycott of Israel” as refusing to deal, terminating business activities, or taking other actions to limit commercial relations with Israel, or persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories, in a discriminatory manner.”

Jim Rosica of the Florida Politics staff contributed to this report.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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