By Ariana Crisafulli
In the underground BART terminal in San Francisco, the walls are plastered with images of a man cannon-balling into a pool in the California sunlight. The tagline says “Live there. Even if it’s just for a night.” The brief sentence evokes sentiments that many travelers feel; that visiting isn’t enough. To get the real experience, one must live it.
It’s not just a sentiment that authenticity-seekers feel, but those who practice responsible travel as well. Living like a local means buying local and contributing to the local economy. But with the increasing popularity and availability of local lifestyles, living as the locals do is starting to mean moving out of major city centers to more affordable housing.
A major contributor to this uptick in resident lifestyles-for-rent are short-term rental services such as Airbnb. Because nearly any resident can rent out a room, or even an entire house, every home or flat can become a short-term rental packaged as a tourist attraction. And business is booming.
In New York, Airbnb reports 19,120 listings for private rooms or shared spaces and 22,253 entire home listings. In Amsterdam, it’s reported that an estimated one in six homeowners rent out a room or an entire flat on Airbnb in popular neighborhoods. In Paris, Airbnb is growing rapidly with a current estimate of 60,000 listings on the homestay platform.
In large cities, a few thousand tourist rentals in a population of millions might seem like dropping salt into the ocean -- it hardly makes a difference. But when most stays are directed toward downtowns and city centers, what results is a saturation of tourists. In the words of a Parisian housing inspector, quoted in Harvard Business Review, “The center of our city is becoming deserted. More and more, it’s just tourists.”
Lisbon is a textbook example. Visitors are overrepresented in two districts of the city, spanning only six square kilometers. And with a population of only half a million people, 10,000 Airbnb-ers in such tight quarters means that “living like a local” could find you asking to borrow a cup of sugar from your next door neighbor hailing from Switzerland.
The Airbnb problem is compounded by the fact that in some cities, such as New York, many local residents are not just listing shared spaces in their own homes, but entire houses or flats. This leaves gaping holes in available housing for locals who actually want to live there, and exacerbates an already-existing housing crisis. In a worst-case scenario, city centers with high populations of short-term housing could become playlands for foreigners and wealthy locals, while middle class residents are pushed to the outskirts or the suburbs. Essentially, a gentrification-meets-mass-tourism problem.
Weighing the impact of increasing short-term rentals and tourism
That is not to say that tourism is an evil unto itself. The Barcelona Field Studies Centre conducted research on the pros and cons of mass tourism. Among the pros, the Centre found that a booming tourism industry helps diversify and stabilize the local economy, provides governments with extra tax revenues through sales taxes, and creates local jobs and business opportunities. And this is exactly what Airbnb boasts they do.
According to Airbnb’s economic impact page, travelers using the platform spend 2.1x more than other tourists and 42% spend money in the neighborhoods in which they stay, all helping to boost the local economy. Even the accusation of gentrification caused by short-term rentals is exaggerated, according to some experts.
Peter Boelhouwer, a professor of housing systems at the University of Technology in Delft told The Guardian that the gentrification of Amsterdam, “has been going on for a long time,” even without the help of Airbnb.
Let’s not forget that locals themselves are the ones renting out houses, not visitors. And hosts are, without a doubt, seeing benefits from a booming tourism industry. Airbnb reports that 52% of hosts have low-to-moderate incomes and that 53% said that hosting helped them stay in their home. But by padding their income, could hosts also be causing damage to their cities in the long run?
If city centers do indeed become sites for mass tourism, locals could see some adverse effects. The Barcelona Field Studies Centre also reports that mass tourism causes inflation on property values, goods, and services, and relies on seasonal businesses. For example, in Mediterranean countries, popular destinations see 40% of tourism in July, August and September. If these areas rely heavily on tourism, many jobs become available during these three months and nearly disappear in slower seasons, putting many local residents out of jobs.
It’s also worth mentioning that tourists and locals have different needs. While residents want affordable grocery stores, childcare centers, hardware shops, and other businesses that assist the daily tasks of their lives, visitors seek out services that provide addendums to their vacation such as tour packages, sports rental stores, and other staples of diversion. With tourism on the rise, these competing businesses could see favor leaning heavily on tourist traps.
Airbnb boasts that their visitors spend more in the neighborhoods in which they stay, but this also means that local restaurants and cafes might find cause to raise their prices. When tourism is the main industry, we can imagine our charming downtowns evolving into DayGlo hubs of visitor amusement, our local diner assailed by overpriced dishes, and our hometown grocery stores replaced by segue adventure tours.
While hosting may be helping some residents remain in their homes, it may be doing the reverse to other locals who do not have the luxury of a spare room or side income. The argument goes that because hosts can boost their income, they are more willing and/or able to pay higher rent, leaving others who cannot, high and dry. Even Boelhouwer admits that, although gentrification was happening before the advent of Airbnb, the situation is not being helped by the abundance of short-term rentals.
Policing the Airbnb effect
Many cities are attempting to address the Airbnb effect. In New York, a new law is in the making to enforce New York’s already existing short-term rental law. The law states that buildings with three or more units, such as apartments, are prohibited from renting for less than 30 days. Because the majority of New York listings fall under this description, it would cause a major drop in short-term rentals in the city. However, it doesn’t affect everyone. If the host is present during the stay, the rental is legal. Furthermore, certain listings, such as one- or two-family homes are not prohibited by the law.
In San Francisco, hosts that use short-term rental sites are required to list their place with the city’s Office of Short-Term Rentals Registry, and in Amsterdam, hosts are only permitted to rent their dwelling 60 days out of the year, while Airbnb collects tourist taxes for the city, among other caveats.
The fact that cities are attempting to curb the influence of Airbnb is significant. It means that the disrupting ripples of Airbnb and its competitors have reached the shores of legislation as well as the attention of well-established institutions such as affordable housing advocates, hotel worker unions, and the American Hotel & Lodging Association. But this is how all disruptors work. A new service that’s shaking up status quo industries will always face push-back.
The New York law doesn’t just show that policymakers are taking note, it also means they’re missing the main message. Matthew Keissling, head of The Travel Technology Association which supports online travel intermediaries, told Skift, “This peer-to-peer economy and the people in it are going to continue to find ways to fulfill that demand. What happened in Austin with Uber and Lyft shows how futile it is to stop something like this that’s a victimless crime. People formed a Facebook group that enabled ridesharing to fulfill that demand. People are demanding accommodations that are being made available through this technology.”
The advent of highly-demanded technology is oftentimes controversial and may have some adverse effects, but it’s nearly impossible to curb. Perhaps the best that Airbnb and other short-term rental sites can do is to comply with legislators in order to ease the growth of a service that may very well be changing the face of many urban areas and the people who reside there.
Ariana is a writer and world traveler. Her writing covers her three main passions: women’s empowerment, travel, and culture. The beauty of the world is not just in scenic mountain views or turquoise waters; it’s in doing the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. For Ariana, that thing is stringing words together.