“Our willingness to share seems to have capped out at a few semi-private rooftop gardens and laundries in earnestly designed but ambitiously priced medium-density apartment buildings.”
Towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the sharing economy that promised to change the way we live has actually been pretty underwhelming. Our willingness to share seems to have capped out at a few semi-private rooftop gardens and laundries in earnestly designed but ambitiously priced medium-density apartment buildings: the type that are populated by wealthy inner-city people who feel anxious about having too much stuff in their lives and want to offset their guilt by living in a branded sustainable community. In those same buildings, the shared bicycles are covered in dust because they’re not as good as the bikes the residents already owned. The ‘community cupboard’ of shared household tools stays closed for the most part because the cost of buying your own vacuum cleaner is much easier to bear than the thought of having to door-knock to find the one that belongs to the building and hasn’t been returned to its proper place.
So-called ride-sharing platforms such as Uber and Lyft really just use the warm and fuzzy word ‘sharing’ to describe what is primarily a ‘service’ provided by a pool of semi-professionals and professionals. Car-sharing is a growing industry with the potential to make great environmental and economic impacts, but the big brands like Go-Get are not ‘sharing’ in the true sense. For a start, Go-Get owns the car, which means the customer is not sharing anything that they own – they’re just sharing time using something that somebody else owns. It’s a very user-friendly kind of sharing, which doesn’t leave anyone feeling anxious about whether a total stranger will ruin something they truly care about. Using the word ‘sharing’ is obviously a very astute way to market to community-oriented consumers. It sounds so much better than the ‘hiring economy’.
Airbnb is a gigantic exception to the rule – you couldn’t call its success underwhelming. Since 2008 it has transformed from a website putting budget travellers on couches across San Francisco into a global guesthouse that has over 2 million ‘rooms’ in 131 countries. By comparison, the world’s largest hotel chain, Marriott, has 1.1 million rooms and was founded in 1927.
To think that Airbnb has reached this scale purely on the back of relatively cheap accommodation is to miss the real genius of its offer – on an emotional level Airbnb’s great promise is that even as a tourist you will ‘live like a local’. This scratches the itch of almost any modern western wanderer with a hunger for the authentic. The sun-drenched, casual style of Airbnb’s photography, their neighbourhood guides and the direct messaging with your local host all skilfully build an impression that is the very opposite of a placeless hotel with staff who understandably don’t care about where they work because, among other soft crimes, their place of employment probably still charges guests for internet.
Airbnb has had profound economic impacts, not just by creating revenue streams where they didn’t exist for property owners and renters who don’t get in trouble for subletting. It has also birthed significant satellite industries in cleaning and other support services. It has kicked lazy hotel operators in the ass, and when they stopped complaining about the new competition the smart ones started improving their offer. Its app-based local guides are beginning to chew up Yelp and Lonely Planet, and most importantly it has helped us travel for less, broadening our understanding of other people and cultures, which is entirely necessary to getting on better as a civilisation. As the American poet Maya Angelou explained, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
The negative effects of Airbnb are less obvious and perversely they also exist because the company is so good at what it does. Most of the problems arise because the platform exposes a fundamentally local product (housing) to an international money market (tourists). At a city-wide level, this means that a resident who might want to renew a lease they’ve had for decades may be competing with a tourist who is only in town for a night or two for the same residential space. Tourists, who have saved money for their trip and expect to pay more per night for short-term accommodation than they would for long-term rent, are made so abundant by Airbnb property that lessors are often better off taking the higher returns from Airbnb customers and risking the odd vacancy. Albeit unintended, this creates yet another economic force in the local housing market that can drive rents up and squeeze locals out.
“Perhaps the real truth is that when we are on holiday we don’t want to live like a local – we have actually come on holiday because we want to have more fun.”
The other downsides of Airbnb are harder to measure and subtler than rental creep. They occur because Airbnb brings people together physically: the tourist is now in the apartment building rather than isolated in the hotel down the street.
Local housing is a delicate ecology where competing interests are often managed by tacit reciprocity rather than explicit rules. In cities, where people live at close quarters, we are in some way encouraged to be polite and care for our homes by the fact that tomorrow we all need to look our neighbours in the eye again. Conversely, if you are a tourist and leaving town soon, you aren’t bound by the same kind of social contract. This is compounded by the fact that you are doing something with your life (travelling) that should be enjoyed and is unshackled from the everyday burdens of responsible bedtimes and early rising. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to stay up late and make some noise in this exciting time in your life… In fact, you probably should. Perhaps the real truth is that when we are on holiday we don’t want to live like a local – we have actually come on holiday because we want to have more fun. These two very different modes of being are sometimes incompatible, and in cases where an entire apartment or home is let on Airbnb it’s usually the poor neighbour who finds out the hard way. The Airbnb website’s photographs of people drinking filter coffee with their new foreign friend while a dog lies in dappled sunlight are not to be trusted. There are likely to be more differences between you and your guest than the fact they come from another country.
Airbnb can also alter the psychology of the individual home. The extra bedroom has a long and proud history as a reservoir for our imperfect objects and moments. Its well-slammed door has hidden ugly furniture, shielded angry spouses from each other, contained the bad dog and buried expensive sporting equipment that was only ever used a few times. Airbnb puts a dollar value on that room, and in so doing its emptiness becomes an opportunity cost in the mind of the owner and the home an unwitting player in the deluded idea that we should monetise everything we own from our living space to our data.
If Airbnb didn’t exist, locals would still be woken by parties and deal with garbage left in the wrong places. We would from time to time still look at our spare rooms and think ‘what a waste of money’. Rents would rise and long-term residents would be displaced by other forces of gentrification. But it’s useful to understand that these things happen more often and a little faster because of Airbnb, and if you take advantage of it as a traveller you need to be willing to bear its consequences on home soil.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development. ‘Airbnb’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming book.