Barrie Barton on Airbnb

Essays & Opinions

The monetised spare room and the consequences of the sharing economy

“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’.

408 Smith is a short-term rental property designed by Studio Edwards for Microluxe. Photograph by Fraser Marsden.

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.

Lounge detail at 408 Smith, by Studio Edwards. Photograph by Fraser Marsden.

“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.

Author

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.

Barrie Barton on Airbnb

Essays & Opinions

The monetised spare room and the consequences of the sharing economy

“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’.

408 Smith is a short-term rental property designed by Studio Edwards for Microluxe. Photograph by Fraser Marsden.

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.

Lounge detail at 408 Smith, by Studio Edwards. Photograph by Fraser Marsden.

“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.

Author

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.

The monetised spare room and the consequences of the sharing economy

Picture a suburb.

If your vision was something negative read the left paragraph; if it was positive head to the right.

Communal Hell

The suburbs are the generative force behind the downfall of the urban community; cookie-cutter gated communities that selfishly suck up resources while transporting people individually in cars between soulless buildings. Without walkable streets, permeability, passive surveillance or anything Jane Jacobs might have liked, these abominations are the harbinger and quintessence of the demise of late capitalism.

Pioneering Bliss

The suburbs are an enclave where families are built through a model of freedom and ownership, giving everyone the chance to have a piece of a dream and establish themselves. The connection to nature and the real community that comes with knowing your neighbours brings people to the true meaning of togetherness that is the backbone of solidarity. This is freedom from claustrophobic, inhumane, polluted and overcrowded city life. Also, people in the suburbs are nice.

408 Smith is a short-term rental property designed by Studio Edwards for Microluxe. Photograph by Fraser Marsden.

Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear. This false dichotomy between urban and suburban taps into ideological undercurrents that relate directly to what we think is good, fair and true. How else could something as inherently innocuous as a cul-de-sac create feelings of comfort or disgust?

To define suburban, or ‘less than urban’, it’s helpful to get a handle on urban. According to Kim Dovey, to be urban is to respect difference and remain civil; the Latin word urbanus closely translates to ‘courteous’. Existing in urban space is recognising the right to share public space while respecting the rights of others to do likewise. Mixed into this are firmly rooted beliefs about land ownership, civic responsibility, density and individualism that shed light on the birth of the modern suburb. To exist in ‘less than urban’ space could be a kind of freedom from the constraints of urbanity, something closer to what Alexander D’Hooghe calls the narrative myths of suburban life: nature, community and progress. Or, it could be a deprivation of the services and amenities that make communal human living possible.

Sitting somewhere between urban and rural, the exact definition of suburban depends on who you ask. American suburbs consist of completely different structures, flows, connections and exchanges to Melbourne’s inner suburbs, which are in turn completely different to the suburbs of Shanghai, Johannesburg, etc. The concept of the suburb as antithetical to the benefits of higher-density urban living is changing, but it started from a strange mix of individual freedom and communal idealism.

Lounge detail at 408 Smith, by Studio Edwards. Photograph by Fraser Marsden.

“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 History of Suburbs

Nothing shapes a city more than transportation, and the term suburb began to take on its contemporary meaning with the advent of our ability to commute. The physical capabilities and economic reasons for the growth of suburbs are relatively straightforward. The contemporary social and cultural history of suburbia is something more complicated, occasionally dark and a little weird.

Initially, suburbs were intrinsically tied to density and immigration. The cities that people left in mid-twentieth century America were not the walkable, liveable places aspired to today. Dramatic population explosions in congested urban environments are often historical precursors to the proliferation of suburbs: veterans returning and the migration of African Americans to northern cities in the US after WWII; the mass exodus from Downtown L.A. after the Watts Riots; or the nineteenth century influx of gold miners in Johannesburg and Melbourne. Twentieth century suburbs and the angst of urban living are best understood against high-density, under-serviced city backdrops.

“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.”

Past

Levittown in Pennsylvania is often accredited as the first official American suburb. Like many large-scale projects, a well-meaning visionary was needed to jumpstart the move. William Levitt viewed Levitt and Sons more as manufacturers than developers and their ability to apply high output framed in modernist principles was their boon. Levittown is famous for producing a new house every 16 minutes. However, their primary mortal sin of urbanity may have been eradicating heterogeneity. In other words, the endeavour was an act of institutional racism. Initial reactions to the suburb were the same kind of words one would use to describe a hospital: safe and antiseptic. Even now, more than seven decades after the first brick was laid, Levittown isn’t the most diverse community on the planet.

 

Present

Not all suburbs are confined homogeneous enclaves. The line between functioning semi-urban suburb and small town is thin. Columbia, Maryland started similarly to Levittown with a visionary focused on nature and humane living. James Rouse set out in the 1960s to build a response to suburbs that were already viewed as cold and lifeless. According to current urban thinking, Columbia was wrong in every way: impermeable, low-density, car-oriented, little public transportation, etc. Now the 100,000 people that make up this unincorporated town are more racially and economically diverse than any of the revitalised neighbourhoods (read: playgrounds of the rich) in New York.

Future?

Western, American and European-centric views of suburbia are limiting. Suburban growth across the world is, thankfully, weirder than that. Thames Town, the famously deserted suburb of Shanghai that replicates an English town – complete with a Tudor pub and fish-and-chip shop – is a more overt version of the postmodern mix of architecture and style that makes Caroline Springs in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne seem a little strange. You can buy a house and an identity. Regardless of style, suburbs are moving towards becoming more densely populated spaces that are digitally connected locally and globally, are layered with a mix of uses and which provide ample physical access to the entire city. Ideally, suburban and urban may no longer be concepts that exist in opposition, they will hopefully provide non-hierarchical overlap and produce new urban forms fit for the 21stcentury.

Author

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.

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