AirBnb hasn’t lived up to its utopian claims

Jay Owens
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Airbnb started as a way to help two friends handle a rent hike. Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky had just quit their jobs to start a business when their landlord jacked up the rent by 20%. But a big design conference was coming to town, and all San Francisco’s hotels were fully booked. Joe had an idea: “Brian, I thought of a way to make a few bucks – turning our place into ‘designers’ bed and breakfast’.”

Three air mattresses in the living room became a $31bn business. Today, parts of the UK – such as Edinburgh Old Town, or the Devon village of Woolacombe – have around one Airbnb listing for every four properties. In cities and tourist destinations around the world, landlords keep increasing rents by 20% or more. Yet Airbnb now appears to be the cause rather than the solution.

The sharing economy also does something more insidious: it transforms everything in our lives into an asset

Like many Californian startups, there was something utopian about Airbnb’s founding vision. What if trustworthy travel didn’t have to mean big, corporate hotel brands? In 2003, couchsurfing.com had pioneered online homestays, using the web to share profiles and reviews to give people confidence that strangers could just be “friends you hadn’t met yet”.

Airbnb took this model and ran with it. It had a kind of countercultural cachet: avoid price-gouging chain hotels! Stay in “unique accommodations (like castles, treehouses or boats!)”. Be part of a “global community”. The company talked smoothly about how it “empowered” residents and distributed “economic opportunities … across diverse communities”.

At first, it seemed like it was doing good – the whole “sharing economy” did. Consumerism and ownership were over; experiences and rental the sustainable future. Neither Gebbia nor Chesky “wanted to ‘create more stuff that ends up in landfill’,” Chesky told the Telegraph in 2012. “The idea of creating a website based on renting something that was already in existence was perfect.”

But behind the Californian hippie language lies the “California ideology”: a libertarian gospel of anti-statism and free markets. Airbnb wanted as much of the short-term lettings market it could get, spamming Craigslist users to get them to switch, and not checking up too closely on who exactly was hosting (comprehensive listing verification was only introduced in 2019). As Wired reported last week, “Airbnb empires are being rapidly scaled and monetised, with professional operators creating scores of fake accounts, fake listings and fake reviews.”

Increasingly, it appears that Airbnb hosts aren’t ordinary people renting out a spare room, but profiteering landlords and rent-to-rent chancers leasing entire apartment blocks. Travellers report being let down by dodgy accommodations and a cheap, identikit “Airspace” aesthetic. Local people are being displaced from their neighbourhoods.

The sharing economy also does something more insidious: it transforms everything in our lives into an asset, viewed in terms of its financial potential. Does my home really need a living room or could I Airbnb it for £50 a night? Do I really need a weekend or could I do some extra work on Fiverr or Deliveroo? It financialises our souls.

And yet, 13 years after Airbnb’s founding, I believe our cities and villages still need more sharing, not less.

The problem is that the houses we have are an increasingly bad fit for the way people live today. We’re living longer, marrying less or later, and having fewer children – if any. In the UK, two-thirds of us live in one-person (29%) or two-person (35%) households - yet six in 10 of our houses have three-plus bedrooms, and only 12% are one-beds. Almost 90% of our housing was built before this century, and it’s designed for a nuclear family (“master bedrooms”) and car ownership (garages and parking spaces), both of which are declining trends.

Related: I know what housing insecurity is like. Rising prices are not good news | Suzanne Moore

We need many and varied housing structures and funding models (rental and ownership) to help us find homes that fit across our lifetimes. Long-term, that means imagining a new architecture of flexible, reorganisable living structures – but in the short term we need ways to rearrange people in the housing we already have. Easy, affordable ways for people to move for a few weeks’ work or training, or for empty-nesters to share their newly empty space. Ways for people to split the cost of housing when they need to cover a gap, without necessarily being locked into year-long arrangements. Ways for towns and cities to accommodate seasonal spikes in festival visitors without turning themselves into a hotel-room ghost town the rest of the year. Hostels and lodger schemes are certainly great, but they aren’t enough.

In the Lake District, Airbnb helps second-homeowners profit while local services struggle. With only 15% of properties occupied year round, the village of Elterwater has lost its Post Office. But homeshares also help farmers diversify by offering B&B to international tourists and travellers. And when people share their actual homes – not just the generic, Ikea-furnished simulations rented out by profiteers – cultural exchange can’t help but happen. In 2016 I stayed in possibly the first and only Airbnb in Greenland. We talked long into the evening about the climate crisis, colonialism and independence with Nivi, our host. It was magic.

Long live that side of Airbnb. But let’s regulate the hell out of the rest.

• Jay Owens is a researcher and writer interested in media, technology and modernity

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