Airbnb can’t go on without regulation – it’s doing too much damage in cities | Steven Poole
RRemember the “sharing economy”? This rhetoric seems more deceitful than ever in light of the news that a single Airbnb user in Barcelona manages an eye-catching portfolio of properties. £33,000 per day in high season. The old quarters are overrun with passing tourists and shops selling souvenirs. Residents’ rents are rising, in Barcelona as well as in Berlin, New York and elsewhere. Airbnb is a parasitic monster that squats cities and sucks in huge sums of money through its slimy trunk. So what can we do?
Airbnb, short for “airbed and breakfast,” originally marketed itself as a way for travelers to stay in people’s spare rooms and get an authentic sense of a foreign culture. This convivial idea is still present in the company’s vocabulary – “guests”, not owners, and “hospitality” instead of “business” – even if the vast majority of its advertisements are now for apartments or self-contained houses. . In Barcelona, it cost €250 (£221) for a short-term rental permit. Now that these permits are no longer issued, they change hands up to €80,000. It’s “sharing” for the rich, maybe, but not for the rest of us.
At the start of their rapid growth, sharing economy companies started their operations around the world without regard to local laws, on the grounds that existing regulations had not considered the radical and disruptive new ideas they embodied. But the tide slowly turned as the tech rhetoric died down and it became clear that Uber was actually a taxi company and Airbnb was actually a hotel business.
So should we just ban them? No, because they can be useful and more attractive services than the alternatives. The question is how to get them to behave better. Consumer boycotts, however well intentioned, do not have the desired effect. The law, however, can. Uber is playing great after Transport for London shocked it last year by initially refusing to renew his license. So here is his clean air plan, involving a 15 pence per mile surcharge on journeys to enable its driver to purchase electric cars. The regulation works.
The first thing potential regulators need to know, however, is what’s really going on, which is surprisingly difficult because Airbnb keeps its data secret. But an enterprising investigation can reveal interesting facts. Tom Slee, author of What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economyfound that Airbnb’s most expensive listing in Rome was one of many luxury rentals purchased for the purpose by an American tech entrepreneur.
Meanwhile, Spanish scholars Albert Arias Sans and Alan Quaglieri in 2016 tested Airbnb claims against Barcelona data to illuminating effect. Airbnb claims that its business is “revitalizing neighborhoods” – so it’s perhaps surprising that “neighbourhoods with the strongest Airbnb presence are losing the most population”, which might give the impression that residents are driven out by higher rents.
Some suggest that local authorities be more responsive and more fluid in their decision-making. A team of four researchers conducted an in-depth study of Airbnb’s impact on London in 2016, and suggested that each landlord could have the “right to commit to a short-term rental for a given period of time”. These rights could be traded in a market run by the local council, which would split the revenue between local neighborhood groups and itself. This would allow councils to react to activity in real time to avoid turning areas into hotspots.
In extreme cases like Barcelona, the only response might be a crackdown. (It would definitely help if Airbnb could bother to pay the €600,000 fine the city levied it in 2016.) In other places, a more nuanced approach might be appropriate. Many cities now put a cap on the number of nights per year, a property can be rented out on a short-term basis and it may also be a good idea to limit the number of properties a single owner can list, or to limit the number of permits that allow owners to list properties in a particular area. The lesson should be that no company is above the law.
In Airbnb’s case, the key to changing its behavior will be forcing it to be more transparent about its operations. In a 2018 analysis of Airbnb in Australia, the researcher Laura Crommelin and her colleagues argued that the company should make its house listing data available to city officials so they can make informed decisions. After all, if the company is really “open” and “shared”, what does it have to hide?