AirBnb failed to live up to its utopian claims | Jay Owen

Airbnb started as a way to help two friends manage a rent increase. Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky had just quit their jobs to start a business when their landlord raised the rent by 20%. But a big design conference was coming to town and all the hotels in San Francisco were booked. Jo had an idea“Brian, I’ve thought of a way to make a few bucks – turn our house into a ‘designer guesthouse’.”

Three air mattresses in the living room have become a $31 billion company. Today, some parts of the UK – like Edinburgh‘s Old Town or the village of Woolacombe in Devon – have around one Airbnb listing for every four properties. In cities and tourist destinations around the world, landlords continue to raise rents by 20% or more. Yet Airbnb now seems to be the cause rather than the solution.

Like many California startups, there was something utopian about Airbnb’s founding vision. What if trustworthy travel didn’t mean great corporate hotel brands? Back in 2003, had pioneered online homestays, using the web to share profiles and reviews to reassure people that strangers could just be “friends you don’t.” hadn’t met yet”.

Airbnb took this model and used it. It had a kind of counter-cultural cachet: avoid chain hotels with excessive prices! Stay in “unique accommodations (like castles, treehouses or boats!)”. Be part of a “global community”. The company speak softly on how he “empowered” residents and distributed “economic opportunity…in diverse communities.”

At first it seemed like it was working fine – the whole “sharing economy” was. Gone are consumerism and ownership; experiences and hire the sustainable future. Neither Gebbia nor Chesky “wanted to ‘create more stuff that ends up in the landfill,'” Chesky told the Telegraph in 2012. “The idea of ​​creating a website based on renting something that already existed was perfect.”

But behind the Californian hippie language hides the “Californian ideology”: a libertarian gospel of anti-statism and free markets. Airbnb wanted as much of the short-term rental market as it could get, spamming craigslist users to get them to switch, and not check too closely who exactly was hosting (the full list check was only introduced in 2019). Like Wired reported last week, “Airbnb empires are rapidly expanding and monetizing, with professional operators creating dozens of fake accounts, fake listings and fake reviews.”

Increasingly, it seems that Airbnb hosts are not ordinary people who rent out a spare room, but profiteering landlords and renters who rent out entire buildings. Travelers say they’ve been let down by questionable accommodations and cheap identikit “Airspace” aesthetic. Local populations are displaced from their neighborhoods.

The sharing economy also does something more insidious: it turns everything in our lives into an asset, seen in terms of its financial potential. Does my house really need a living room or could I have the Airbnb for £50 a night? Do I really need a weekend or can I do extra work on Fiverr or Deliveroo? He finances our souls.

And yet, 13 years after Airbnb was founded, I believe our cities and towns still need more sharing, not less.

The problem is that the houses we have are increasingly ill-suited to the way people live today. We live longer, we marry less or later and have fewer children, if any. In the UK, two-thirds of us live in one-person (29%) or two-person (35%) households – again 6 out of 10 of our homes have three bedrooms and only 12% are one bed. Nearly 90% of our homes were built before this century and are intended for a nuclear family (“parental rooms”) and car ownership (garages and parking lots), two downward trends.

We need many different housing structures and financing models (rental and ownership) to help us find homes that fit our lives. In the long term, that means imagining a new architecture of flexible, reorganizable living structures — but in the short term, we need ways to reorganize people into the homes we already have. Easy and affordable ways for people to move around for a few weeks of work or training, or for people away from home to share their newly empty space. Ways for people to share the cost of housing when they need to fill a gap, without necessarily being locked into year-long arrangements. Ways for towns to accommodate seasonal peaks of festival visitors without turning into a ghost town of hotel rooms the rest of the year. Hostels and boarder programs are certainly great, but they are not enough.

In the Lake District, Airbnb is helping second home owners profit while local services struggle. With only 15% properties occupied year-round, the village of Elterwater lost its post office. But flatshares also help farmers diversify by offering bed and breakfast accommodation to tourists and international travelers. And when people share their actual homes — not just the generic Ikea-furnished simulations rented out by profiteers — cultural exchange can only happen. In 2016 I stayed at the first and only Airbnb in Greenland. We spoke long into the evening about the climate crisis, colonialism and independence with Nivi, our host. It was magical.

Long live this side of Airbnb. But let’s settle the hell of the rest.

Jay Owens is a researcher and writer interested in media, technology and modernity

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