Venice had its own “Airbnb problem” during the Renaissance – here’s how it coped

Cities around the world have struggled to balance the interests of visitors with the needs of residents, as vacation rental platforms such as Airbnb grew up in popularity and size. Evidence shows that converting rented housing to short-term housing contributes to housing shortages, raises housing prices, accelerates gentrification, and erodes local communities.

Cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and London acted for curb these negative effects, imposing new taxes or limiting the number of nights a property can be rented. Today, Venice is one of the most affected cities: the resident population has fallen to its lowest level in centuries and city leaders are looking for ways to mitigate adverse effects of mass tourism.

Yet the city also has a long history of dealing with the pros and cons of migration and tourism, and finding ways to benefit – but also integrate – foreigners. Indeed, in Renaissance Venice, a massive influx of foreigners fueled the growth of a large informal accommodation sector, difficult to tax and regulate and which had a major impact on the urban community. Seems familiar?

Booming city of the Renaissance

In the 16th century, Venice was the capital of its own immense empire and a major crossroads for trade and travel between mainland Europe and the Mediterranean. Along with painters including Titian and Giorgione who made the city a center of Renaissance culture, the the population has increased from about 100,000 to almost 170,000 in just 50 years.

Unlike today, the people drawn to Venice back then were mostly international merchants and entrepreneurs, migrants seeking work in local industries, or refugees from war and hunger. But the first tourists also arrived during this period, such as the French writer and nobleman Montaigne, come to discover the cultural treasures of the city. And all of these people needed a place to stay.

Humming: painting by Vittore Carpaccio showing a miraculous healing in Venice, circa 1496.
Wikimedia Commons.

My research showed how hundreds of ordinary Venetians in this era saw a chance to make money by renting rooms or beds. Many were women who struggled to make a living in other ways: people like Paolina Briani, who in the 1580s rented rooms from Muslim merchants in the Ottoman Empire, in her house a short walk from the St. Mark’s Square.

By opening up their accommodation to migrants and travelers, these hosts – unlike most absent Airbnb owners today – intimate spaces shared with people who spoke different languages ​​and practiced different religions.

Regulate the informal economy

The rapid growth of this informal housing economy has alarmed the Venetian government. Fearing the spread of both disease and threatening political and religious ideas, the government was keen to regulate and monitor the presence of foreigners in their city. They also wanted to minimize competition with the city’s licensed hostels, a profitable source of tax revenue.

So, much like today, the government has tried to register and tax housekeepers, and make them accountable for the movements of their tenants. Although this regulation has been very difficult to enforce due to the informal nature of many accommodation companies, the rulers in Venice have not tried to eliminate this sector entirely.

While wanting to control the movement of people, they also saw that migrants and visitors were essential to the city’s economy and its cultural power. They wanted to welcome anyone who brought in valuable goods, innovative ideas or essential manpower.

At the same time, the government has taken into account that ordinary Venetians – especially vulnerable and poor groups such as widows – have also benefited from the influx. And the money residents have earned by providing housing could be essential to their survival.

A delicate balance

Admittedly, the authorities in Venice did not welcome all the arrivals. They took aggressive measures to prevent “unwanted” (such as beggars and prostitutes) from entering the city. They are also putting increasing pressure on religious minorities to live in separate spaces – the most famous the Jewish ghetto.

But they also saw the benefits of promoting a diverse and flexible hospitality industry that could serve the interests of locals as well as visitors. Licensed shelters were allowed to flourish and, alongside hostels, became a central part of the city’s emergence. tourist infrastructure.

Many newcomers who came to live with the residents – where they could learn something about the local language and customs – have settled down and are integrating into the community. In its regulation of the hospitality industry, Renaissance Venice struck a delicate balance between the interests of foreigners and locals, which was crucial to the city’s economic, cultural and political strength.

Today, such a compromise appears very difficult to achieve. There are differences between yesterday and today: in the reasons people come to town; in the nature of competing urban needs; and in likely solutions and policies. But it seems that cities can take inspiration from Renaissance Venice and act to promote meaningful interactions between visitors and residents; for example, as Berlin did, by banning people from renting entire apartments on Airbnb. The Venice of 500 years ago challenges people to think about the “Airbnb problem” in a more nuanced way.

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