Airbnb and the so-called sharing economy are emptying our cities | Gaby Hinsliff

TThe banner hung from a third-story balcony, extending almost to the cobblestones of the square. Barcelona not isin venda, he read, in big hand-painted letters: the city is not for sale. It wasn’t the first such slogan we’d seen in just about an hour as we wandered the narrow, winding streets of Barcelona’s beautiful old quarter last week, and naturally our curiosity was piqued. Something to do with gentrification, or developers maybe? Well, in part. But, disconcertingly, it turned out to have a lot to do with people like us, and maybe you too.

Or to be more precise, with the multi-billion pound global phenomenon that is Airbnb. I happen to be quite old school to have stayed in a hotel this time around, but the airport bus was full of young families chatting about collecting their flat keys via the site which is famous for letting people rent their homes to strangers. And Barcelona is far from the only place where Airbnb is accused of turning summer into sour.

Amsterdam severely restricts short-term rentals by residents after street protests against the city’s invasion by tourists last year. It’s the same story from Paris to Berlin, from Venice to Lisbon. Even in Cornwall, at the height of this summer’s heatwave, tourist chefs took the unusual step of asking holidaymakers to avoid some popular beaches after coastal roads became congested, leaving locals struggling to get on with their lives daily. Cornish people are more than used to being overrun in August, but lately something seems to upset the eternally delicate balance between grockle and local, and the prime suspect seems to be an unforeseen and somewhat unpredictable explosion in Airbnb allows the- above the long-standing hotel and bed and breakfast business.

At least in the West Country, things tend to calm down in September. Barcelona is a city destination for most of the year, which means it struggles with more than an excess of drunken stag parties and queues at tapas bars. Landlords realized they could make more money with short-term rentals to affluent Airbnb users than by renting to conventional tenants who live and work in the city year-round. up to levels that young Spaniards cannot afford. Once evicted from the neighborhood, the empty apartment quickly disappears into what is still sometimes euphemistically called the “sharing economy,” although what happens next looks like the antithesis of sharing. Those who are lucky enough to own a coveted property have more and more luck in offering it to the highest bidders. Meanwhile, those who don’t own such an asset become less and less likely to get one, as house prices rise across the city. Thus, inequalities harden and resentment intensifies, while the failure of traditional parties to solve the problem pushes the young and the frustrated closer and closer to the political fringes.

The young wife of a Barcelona barber who explained bluntly what the slogans were about, while passing her scissors over my husband, had long since given up buying in the city where she had grown up. But now she doesn’t even know how long she will be able to rent. The tourist’s dilemma has always been that going down to idyllic places tends to ruin them for the people who live there, but what’s unusual about this case is that the effects run so deep.

So much for the decidedly hippy vibe of the original Airbnb model, which was supposed to create a comfortable “global community” by connecting adventurous strangers looking for more authentic and authentic travel experiences. And too bad for the idea of ​​democratizing the travel industry by letting the little guy make money on the side. In some tourism hot spots, Airbnb is now transforming from a hobbyist operation to a professional one, with owners amassing multiple properties as they once did with hire-purchase and using agencies to run their burgeoning empires. .

The romantic fantasy, though at times risky, of trading one’s life with a local for a few nights and seeing the city through one’s eyes is replaced by a more corporate and impersonal experience. Register here for keys; quickly check in time for the arrival of the next guest. Too bad what might have been a young couple’s starting apartment is now just another sweating asset, and probably stays empty half the time.

“Along with other Spanish cities, Barcelona has decided to limit the Airbnb effect, with licensing programs and restrictions on new rentals in the old town.” Photograph: Alamy

And while it’s uncomfortable knowing that your cheap getaway comes with such a hidden cost, the guilt seems unlikely to put many travelers off. After all, the pangs of conscience in the face of climate change didn’t stop millions of us from taking no-frills cheap flights back in the days when easyJet was disrupting the vacation market. But it’s more than what people choose to do with their summers. It’s about how modern markets work and what happens when governments don’t step in or quite can’t figure out how to do it quickly enough. Along with other Spanish cities, Barcelona decided to limit the Airbnb effect with licensing programs and restrictions on new rentals in the old town. But if we’ve learned anything from Ubers, Amazons, and Facebooks, it’s that by the time the unwanted human consequences of digital disruption become evident, much of the damage is often already done.

However, what really struck the Barcelona hairstylist was that when she traveled she heard similar stories. All over the world, cities seem to be eating themselves, crowding out the young, skinny and creative, who too often are the ones who made them painfully plugged in in the first place. Of course, this manifests itself differently in different places: London has experienced a housing affordability crisis even before Airbnb was invented. The soaring prices from Berlin to Vancouver to Sydney have been blamed on everything from cheap borrowing and foreign speculation to changing demographics and the government’s failure to build enough social housing, none of which is is the fault of the owners of second homes making a quick profit.

But the common thread is the feeling that, for some reason, the markets are not up to the young in a post-crash world; that digital disruption only makes things more unpredictable; and that years of politicians sincerely promising to do something about it have become pitifully little. All of this is a statement of the obvious bleeding now, a truth so universally accepted that it has almost completely lost its power to shock – until it is seen from a slightly new perspective. But then, that’s the problem with travel. Sometimes you travel halfway around the world to notice what was under your nose from the start.

Gaby Hinsliff is a columnist for The Guardian

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