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

Jhe banner hanging from a third-floor balcony stretched almost to the cobblestones of the square. Barcelona no eastfor sale, he said 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 wandering 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 global multi-billion pound phenomenon that is Airbnb. I happen to be pretty old school to have stayed in a hotel this time around but the airport bus was full of young families talking about getting their apartment keys through the famous site to let people in renting their houses to strangers. And Barcelona is far from the only place Airbnb has been accused of turning summer sour.

amsterdam Severely restricting short-term rentals by residents after street protests against the town’s overrun 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, tourism leaders took the unusual step of asking holidaymakers to avoid some popular beaches after coastal roads clogged up, leaving locals struggling to get on with their daily lives. Cornwall residents are more than used to being overwhelmed in August, but lately something seems to upset the eternally delicate balance between grockle and local, and the main suspect seems to be an unplanned and somewhat unpredictable explosion in Airbnb leaves behind. above the long-standing hotel and lodge trade.

At least in the West Country, things tend to calm down in September. Barcelona is a virtually year-round city holiday destination, which means it’s plagued with more than just an overabundance of drunken bachelor parties and queues outside tapas bars. Landlords realized they could make more money renting short-term to affluent Airbnb users than renting to conventional tenants who live and work in the city year-round. So when contracts need to be renewed, it’s not uncommon to find the rent suddenly shooting up to levels young Spaniards can’t afford. Once evicted from the neighborhood, the empty apartment quickly disappears into what is still sometimes euphemistically called the “sharing economy,” though what happens next sounds like the antithesis of sharing. Those lucky enough to own a desirable property are getting luckier and luckier selling it to the highest bidders. Meanwhile, those who don’t own such an asset are becoming less and less likely to get one, as real estate prices rise across the city. Thus, inequalities harden and resentment deepens, while the failure of mainstream parties to address the issue pushes the young and frustrated ever closer to the political fringes.

The young wife of a Barcelona barber who explained bluntly what the slogans were about, while running her scissors over my husband, had long since given up buying in the city where she grew up. But now she doesn’t even know how long she can 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 is that the effects are so profound.

So much for the genuinely hippie vibe of the original Airbnb model, which was supposed to be about creating a warm-sounding “global community” by connecting adventurous strangers looking for more authentic, home-based travel experiences. And so much for the idea of ​​democratizing the travel industry by letting the little guy earn money on the side. In some tourist hotspots, Airbnb is transitioning from amateur to shrewd professional operation, with owners hoarding multiple properties as they once did with buy-to-let and using agencies to manage their burgeoning empires. .

The romantic, if sometimes risky, fantasy of swapping lives with a local for a few nights and seeing the city through their eyes is replaced by a more impersonal and corporate experience. Sign here for keys; check in quickly in time for the next guest to arrive. Too bad that what could have been a young couple’s starting apartment is now just another asset to sweat, and which probably remains empty half the time.

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

And while it’s uncomfortable to know that your cheap getaway has such a hidden cost, guilt is unlikely to put many travelers off. After all, the pangs of conscience over climate change didn’t stop millions of us from taking cheap no-frills flights back when it was easyJet that disrupted the holiday market. But it is not limited to what individuals choose to do with their summers. It’s about how modern markets work and what happens when governments don’t step in or can’t figure out how to do it fast enough. Along with other Spanish cities, Barcelona has decided to limit the Airbnb effect with licensing regimes 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 unintended human consequences of digital disruption become apparent, much of the damage is often already done.

What really struck the Barcelona hairdresser, however, was that when she traveled she heard similar stories. Cities around the world seem to be eating themselves out, crowding out the young, the skinny and the creative, who are too often the ones who made them painfully hip in the first place. This manifests differently in different places, of course: London has had a crisis in housing affordability even before Airbnb was invented. The skyrocketing prices of Berlin in Vancouver to Sydney have been blamed for everything from cheap borrowing and foreign speculation to changing demographics and the government’s failure to build enough social housing, none of which is remotely the fault of landlords. second homes making a quick profit.

But the common thread is the feeling that, for whatever reason, markets are failing young people in a post-crash world; that digital disruption only makes things more unpredictable; and that years of politicians earnestly promising to do something about it have become pitifully little. This is all a statement of the hemorrhage evident now, a truth so universally accepted that it has almost completely lost its power to shock – until seen from a slightly new vantage point. But then that’s the problem of travel. Sometimes you go halfway around the world to notice what’s been right under your nose all along.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

Comments are closed.