Rise in Airbnb listings linked to more violent crime in Boston neighborhoods, study finds


Airbnb strongly pushed back against the study’s findings.

Gabby Jones/Bloomberg

New research from Northeastern University suggests that the increase in Airbnb listings in Boston was linked to more reports of violence in those neighborhoods in subsequent years. The results suggest that this was not due to tourism from Airbnbs, but rather disruption caused by short-term rentals due to the lack of social dynamics in communities.

The research, published July 14 by teachers Daniel O’Brien and Babak Heidari and doctoral student Laiyang Kelooked at data on Airbnb listings in Boston from 2011 to 2018, as well as 911 calls of the same duration.

“We hypothesized, we mapped it out and said, ‘OK, let’s test it’, but the idea that [social ties in a neighborhood] became the predominant story here was probably not what we planned to do there,” O’Brien told Boston.com.

Airbnb in Boston started growing exponentially from 2014, according to the study. Enrollments have more than doubled since then, to 6,014 in 2018.

The study found that despite the number of tourists Airbnbs attract, the spike in reports of violent crime in the neighborhood occurred a few years after the listings were introduced to the community. The lagged effect suggests that it is not the tourists who are to blame, according to the study, but that short-term rentals remove the aspect of social organization that is usually built in a residential community.

Social organization, a sociological or criminological concept, refers to a system in a society or community that establishes social norms and shares common values. This is typically seen in residential neighborhoods and tends to lower crime levels in the area, the researchers said.

“What’s interesting about social organization is that it’s not really about going to each other’s house for barbecues in the garden, it’s not about knowing all your neighbours”, O’Brien said. “It’s as little as being familiar strangers.”

In a lengthy response posted online, Airbnb strongly pushed back against the results without directly naming the study, saying that “it uses an unrepresentative sample in one city to draw general conclusions nationwide.” The response also highlighted what the company says are several key issues with the study, including “flawed methodology” and “inaccurate data”.

“The result is a document with inaccurate conclusions not supported by evidence,” Airbnb said, adding that it would contact the university with its concerns.

The response points to the use of retrieved data as the base data set, which Airbnb said was inaccurate data. Although the data was extracted from the third party organization Inside AirbnbHeydari said it was a reputable organization.

“We encourage Airbnb to make their data more transparent so researchers can use more accurate data,” he said.

Airbnb also said the study relied on Granger’s method of causation, which establishes “whether one event or action sequentially precedes another, not whether one causes the other.” But, according to Heydari, this particular methodology was not used and this was explained in the document.

Heydari also said they would encourage other researchers to look at the increase in Airbnb listings in other cities and violent crime to observe the generalizability of the study.

The research was inspired by stories of Airbnbs inserting crime into neighborhoods. During the early stages of the research, the two professors found two schools of thought: one asserting that the sharing economy is the next industrial revolution, and the other showing concerns about platforms like Airbnb.

Heydari, who worked on mathematical modeling and analysis, saw that the first school of thought was, although based on stylized mathematical models, oversimplified in some cases. On the other hand, the second seemed more anecdotal.

“One of the goals of this project is to be somewhere in the middle,” Heydari said. “We would still like to have enough modeling to be able to identify the mechanisms, but we also want to go beyond these anecdotes and find a casual relationship.”

According to the newspaper, this was the first study of Airbnbs’ impacts at the neighborhood level. Although the research had limitations, including data not available from Airbnb, it showed a correlation between the ads and violence, the researchers said.

In order to combat the increase in this violence, O’Brien suggested that neighborhoods place a quota on the number of Airbnb listings in the area. Heydari also floated the idea that companies such as Airbnb can work with local governments to establish public-private partnerships.

“The discovery could be used in different ways,” Heydari said. “I think regulation remains one of the important pillars.”

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