Airbnb faces an existential expansion problem

Surprisingly, the new Airbnb advertising campaign urges you not to be a tourist: “Don’t go to Paris, don’t go around Paris, and please don’t do Paris.” But then the punchline: “Living in Paris…even if it’s just for one night. Jonathan Mildenhall, CEO of Airbnb told Adweek that the campaign reflects a “growing demand for experiences that do not resemble typical tourist experiences, which in fact reflect more what it is to live in local places”.

But how many travelers will be able to “live” there before Airbnb accepts that it has become a vehicle for mass tourism, and that its users are tourists, no more and no less? Like other parts of the tourism industry, Airbnb has become a double-edged sword. Visitors gain new experiences and bring in money, but as their numbers grow, they erode the very atmosphere in which they bask and threaten the livability of the city for residents.

Two years ago, there were 20,000 Airbnb listings in Paris. A year later the number had risen to 40,000 and a housing inspector told the Wall Street Journal, “The center of our city is becoming deserted. More and more, they are just tourists. Since then, another 20,000 more ads have appeared, so it’s no surprise that the company with the tagline “Belong Anywhere” has had a chilling reception from city governments around the world struggling to deal with this explosion. tourist accommodation.

Airbnb continues to market its business as low-impact, made up of daily hosts who occasionally rent out their own homes. A recent Airbnb report on its activities in Lisbon shows that “many listings on Airbnb in Lisbon are homes of local residents”, reassuring readers that “72% of Airbnb hosts in Lisbon only have one listing”. But that’s being economical with the truth: My Independent Collections database shows that the 28% of multi-listed hosts (which can be considered as “commercial” hosts) represent two thirds of the company’s activity in Lisbon. And while Airbnb claims that “70% of Airbnb guests in Lisbon stay outside typical tourist hotspots”, my data shows that the majority of visits take place inside the two central neighborhoods of Misericórdia and Santa Maria Maior, an area of ​​about six squares only. kilometers. With enrollment numbers in this small city of half a million people rising from 5,500 in May 2015 to over 10,000 today, a significant impact is inevitable. João Seixas, professor of geography at the New University of Lisbon, and his colleagues are “very concerned about what is happening rapidly in the historic center of our beautiful city. Our estimate is that over the last three years, around a quarter or even a third of the housing stock has changed function, mainly towards financial investments and short-term rentals.

What’s the endgame for cities where Airbnb continues to grow? Some cities say they don’t want to be “the next Venice”, turning into a theme park for tourists, with locals kicked out. It’s not an unreasonable concern. Fusion’s Kristen V. Brown visited Reykjavík (yes, as a tourist). It is a small city, with a population of only 120,000 and a flood of tourists. Based on data I provided, Brown wrote: “The city’s only apartment rental website, leigulistinn.is, lists only nine apartments for rent in downtown Reykjavik. There were 22 in the whole city… In Reykjavik, there are around 50,000 apartments; 2,551 of them, or 5%, are Airbnb units.

Even the smallest communities have scale issues when it comes to Airbnb. Joshua Tree is a small town of 7,000 people located on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in California. He has more than 200 Airbnb rentals available. Resident Christine Pfranger observes that “locals are struggling to find homes to rent and are being pushed out of their homes to make way for more vacation rentals.” Another resident adds, “Airbnb and vacation rentals are changing our community…House prices are going up because people are now buying homes to rent out as vacation rentals, making it almost impossible for people working in the area to buy a house.

Airbnb claims to be open to partnerships with cities, but it has shown little interest in these issues; the company strongly opposes any measure that would limit the scope of its activity.

Airbnb’s rocky relationship with its hometown of San Francisco has recently worsened. In February 2015, a new rule required Airbnb hosts to register with the city, but more than a year later only about a fifth have done so. Now the city is hold Airbnb accountable for its hosts and will fine the business $1,000 a day for every unregistered listing the city can find. This is a new level of seriousness, after similar actions in New York State and Chicago.

Airbnb’s answer is drag San Francisco to federal court, arguing that the city violates three laws. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 states that website owners are not responsible (because they are not the publishers) for content provided by users on their sites. It’s a law that protects bloggers, newspapers, and social media sites like Craigslist, Yelp, and YouTube. The Stored Communications Act of 1986 (SCA) states that governments must have a specific subpoena before they are entitled to information about users of a web service. And finally, Airbnb claims protection under the First Amendment, arguing that the new rule is a “content-based restriction.”

Airbnb presents its activity as a matter of discourse. Although it promotes the idea of ​​”living like a local” in the cities where it makes its money, the company says it ultimately has no responsibility for what happens on the ground, much like a website with comments.

If Airbnb is successful, and some specialists believe they have a good chance, the CDA will release the company from liability for the impact of its activity, and the SCA will prevent cities from finding responsible hosts, and therefore Airbnb. Municipal governments across the United States would be powerless to limit the number of Airbnb listings or the intensity of tourist activity they bring. It’s a powerful mix of bad incentives.

But not everything would be easy for Airbnb. Most of its business is now in Europe, where Berlin, Barcelona, and in a lesser extent, Paris find new insurance in the face of the explosion of vacation rentals. Meanwhile, mayors from 10 major markets around the world are setting up a task force to build a common response to the problems Airbnb brings. Such developments are timely. Without them, authentic tourist experiences can be purchased at the price of those who matter most: the actual residents.

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