Venice had its own ‘Airbnb problem’ during the Renaissance – here’s how it got away with it

Cities around the world have struggled to balance the interests of visitors with the needs of residents, as vacation rental platforms like Airbnb grew up in popularity and size. Proof show that the conversion of rental housing into short-term housing contributes to the housing shortage, increases house pricesaccelerates gentrification and erodes local communities.

Cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and London acted to curb these negative effects, impose new taxes or limit the number of nights a property can be rented. Today, Venice is one of the most affected cities: the resident population has dropped to its lowest level in centuries and municipal leaders are looking for ways to mitigate the the evils 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 take advantage of foreigners, but also integrate them. Indeed, in Renaissance Venice, a massive influx of foreigners fueled the rise of a large informal accommodation sector, difficult to tax and regulate and which had a major impact on the urban community. Sound familiar?

Renaissance boom town

In the 16th century, Venice was the capital of its huge empire and a major crossroads for trade and travel between continental Europe and the Mediterranean. At the same time that painters like Titian and Giorgione made the city a center of Renaissance culture, the the population has increased from about 100,000 to nearly 170,000 in just 50 years.

Unlike today, the people drawn to Venice at the time were mainly international traders and entrepreneurs, migrants seeking work in local industries, or refugees from war and hunger. But the first tourists also arrived in this period, such as the French writer and nobleman Montaigne, come to discover the cultural treasures of the city. And all these people needed housing.

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

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

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

Regulate the informal economy

The rapid growth of this informal accommodation economy 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 made efforts to register and tax landlords, and oblige them to declare the movements of their tenants. Although this regulation was very difficult to enforce due to the informal nature of many accommodation businesses, Venice’s leaders did not attempt to eliminate this sector completely.

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

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

A delicate balance

Admittedly, the Venetian authorities do not welcome all arrivals. They took aggressive measures to prevent “undesirables” (like beggars and prostitutes) from entering the city. They also put increasing pressure on religious minorities to live in separate spaces – most famously 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 lodging houses were allowed to flourish and, alongside hostels, became a central part of the city’s emergence. tourist infrastructure.

Many newcomers who came to stay with residents – where they could learn something about the local language and customs – later settled and integrated into the community. In its regulation of the hotel industry, Renaissance Venice struck a delicate balance between the interests of foreigners and locals, which was crucial for the economic, cultural and political strength of the city.

Today, such a compromise seems very difficult to achieve. There are differences between yesterday and today: in the reasons why 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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