In this episode, we’re going to dive deep into the home sharing platform, Airbnb and what’s known as “The Airbnb Effect”. Though often touted as a way to “live like a local,” Airbnb’s near ubiquitous presence around the world often has detrimental effects for actual locals.
However, the Airbnb Effect is a nuanced issue. Is Airbnb all bad or can it be used ethically? What alternatives to Airbnb exist? What do we do as full time travelers who prefer to stay in apartments?
We cover it all in this episode and corresponding blog post version below.
Subscribe and listen to The House Sitting Travel Podcast below or on your favorite podcast app. Just search House Sitting Travel in your app of choice or click these links: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Last but not least, if you’re not a member of TrustedHousesitters (our fav site) and want to join, click here to sign up with a 10% discount just for our readers.
And now, onto the blog post!
- What is Airbnb?
- What is the Airbnb effect?
- How Airbnb can be harmful (and where it is especially problematic)
- Airbnb’s role in gentrification
- Benefits of Airbnb
- Our experiences living in places where Airbnb is affecting local communities
- Why this is such a nuanced issue without a clear-cut answer
- If it’s possible (and how) to use Airbnb ethically
- Regulations that places have put into place and why this helps
- Alternatives to Airbnb in the sharing economy (including our favorite)
- Much more!
Links + Resources Mentioned in the Show
- Episode 8: Sustainable Travel 101
- Episode 13: Alternative Destinations: Sarajevo, Bosnia + Herzegovina
- Episode 16: Vegan Foodie Cities: Salt Lake City, Utah
- Soaring rents and noisy parties: how Airbnb is forcing out Barcelona locals (The Guardian)
- The Airbnb Effect on Housing and Rent (Forbes)
- Tourists love ‘live like a local’ travel. Do locals? (video on Lisbon)
- Palma in Spain’s Balearic Islands bans almost all Airbnb-style rentals (Reuters)
- Airbnb as a Racial Gentrification Tool (Inside Airbnb)
- Understanding Japan’s Short-Term Rental Regulations (Medium)
- Barcelona’s Latest Affordable Housing Tool: Seize Empty Apartments (Bloomberg)
- Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America by Randy Shaw
What follows is a blog post version of the above podcast!
What is Airbnb?
Today, we want to talk all about Airbnb and what’s known as “The Airbnb Effect”. Our goal with our podcast and blog is to encourage fellow travelers to think differently, critically, and responsibly about travel habits.
Since no one can travel right now, it’s the perfect time to revisit our travel habits. We’re not as invested in travel (since we can’t) and it’s a little easier to take a step back. We can look at travel with a more critical eye when we’re not in the middle of planning a trip.
We’ve mentioned Airbnb here and there before on the podcast and blog, but it was high time that we dedicate some space and time to discussing the negative impacts of Airbnb.
In case you’re not familiar, Airbnb is a platform where a host can essentially offer their place or a room in their place as a place to stay. The marketing and promotional tagline behind Airbnb is “live like a local.” The idea is that someone can stay in a local’s apartment and experience their accommodation from the perspective of a resident.
In practice though, Airbnb properties can be quite a few different things. On the most humble level, it might be someone’s room in their two bedroom apartment. On the other hand, listings can end up being several properties that are owned by a larger company and used exclusively as Airbnbs.
Airbnb also has gone further than accommodation. Now, they offer Airbnb experiences where you can book a tour, cooking class, or other experience with a local. Airbnb luxury rentals, business rentals, and other more “elevated” properties are also now the norm on the website. Long story short, Airbnb is huge and has a large presence in cities throughout the world.
In theory, Airbnb is a good idea. A local rents out their extra room, they get spare money, you interact with the local. It’s great for everyone. And that’s was how it was in the beginning.
I’ve been using Airbnb since around 2012. My experiences back then were very different from more recent Airbnb experiences. One of my first Airbnb experiences was in Krakow, Poland. The place was owned a Polish woman who had recently moved to Paris and was just renting out her apartment for the rest of her lease. Her mom was the one who showed us in and it was a really cute place. The owner had left a little booklet of all her favorite places in the area, and overall it was a very nice and warm experience. But more recently, Airbnb has just has become just a way to make money.
Before we go any further, we want to be very clear that we’re not demonizing Airbnb or people who use it. There are many different reasons for why Airbnb has become problematic and it’s a complex issue. That being said, we have a lot of problems with how Airbnb has played out.
What is the Airbnb Effect?
In a nutshell, the Airbnb Effect refers to the negative impact that Airbnb has had on local communities around the world. It has contributed in a lot of ways to overtourism, housing shortages, rising rents, and other issues. It’s a very complex issue with a lot of moving parts.
For starters, one of the problems that airBnB creates in local communities with this “live like a local” idea is that it actually ends up displacing locals.
We’ve heard about this, read about this, and experienced it second-hand. When we were living in Madrid, one of our friends got kicked out of his room when the live-in landlord realized that he could make more money if he put the bedroom on Airbnb. We gave our friend and his girlfriend a place to stay for about a month while they scrambled to find another place.
And as an aside, Madrid is not even touted as an overtouristed destination. Usually you hear about Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Bali, places like that where Airbnb has even more of an effect.
Some people think that Airbnb can be ethical if you make sure that you’re renting out a room with a local. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that room hasn’t displaced someone. With our friend, his roommate was also his landlord, and he basically said, “yeah, I’m kicking you out. I’m turning this room into an Airbnb.”
This is important to point out because a lot of people think that Airbnb is only taking away residences from locals if it’s a whole apartment that’s rented out. That’s obviously a huge part of it, but it’s not just whole apartments that’s the problem.
The Complexities of The Gig Economy
It’s also important to not that it’s not as if Airbnb were to disappear from the face of the planet tomorrow, there wouldn’t still be a housing shortage and housing problems. But Airbnb makes the problem that’s already there worse. It compounds and accelerates the issue.
We’re not even trying to demonize that landlord either. If he had a job that paid him a living wage, he wouldn’t have to look towards his own apartment as a way to make a living. But Spain has really high unemployment and the employment that exists has terrible wages. That’s another issue.
This is huge pattern amongst what is called the gig economy. A lot of the proponents of the gig economy like to tout how it gives people more power and access to resources to make more money. But other hand, this economy exists because of the 2008-2009 recession. So many people have to look for side hustles because of their current employment or lack of employment. When they’re not able to cover the bills, people are going to do whatever they can to make money.
Unfortunately in a lot of these gig economy situations, the companies act as “software agents”. They don’t treat anyone that they’re working with as employees. They’re able to basically have a workforce with fewer rights and whom they don’t have to take care of in the way that a more corporate conventional model has to provide benefits to employees.
Airbnb, Uber, DoorDash and the like will say, “We’re just creating the software and everyone who’s involved in this whole exchange is just using our software.” Because of that, they’re able to skirt a lot of issues in terms of worker rights and regulation. That’s how you get issues like this, where almost anybody can start an Airbnb. This leads to extremes, such as in Barcelona where people buy out buildings and turn all those units into quick cheap easy Airbnb units.
This affects the local culture as well.
Negative Effects of Airbnb on Affordable Housing and Local Communities
We recently came across an article in the Guardian where they were interviewing residents in a neighborhood in Barcelona that was not usually a place that tourists tended to stay. There weren’t a lot of hotels or many tourist attractions, but it was becoming cool, investors started buying properties and individual landlords started renting out places on Airbnb. It totally changed the fabric of the community. All of a sudden, you don’t know your neighbors anymore.
Community is such a big part of Spanish culture and life. For fellow New Yorkers, not knowing your neighbors is just normal. But in Spain, that’s a big deal. Not just that, but now a lot of local businesses in areas where there are an increasing number of Airbnb units go out of business. These are businesses that would cater to locals (grocery stores, clothing repair stores, etc.). In their place, businesses catering to tourists, like souvenir stands, pop up.
It’s ironic because travelers stay in an Airbnb to “live like a local”….but what is the place when you displace all the locals and all the local businesses and instead a Starbucks goes up?-Veren
It’s only tourists then, and the minority of neighborhood residents are actual locals. What are you visiting now? What has that place become? It’s a former shell of itself. That culture has essentially been eradicated. Then you just have Starbucks chains, McDonalds. Why are you going there in the first place? It might as well just be another open-air Disneyland.
When we dog sat for a friend in a central Madrid neighborhood, we could feel that happening. When walking down a street, most of the people are tourists with wheely bags. It dramatically changes how it feels to be there, and it’s not just an aesthetic thing. It leads to what people are interested in and what they want to patronize.
For example, in normally quiet residential neighborhoods, now there are Airbnb guests partying late at night because they’re on vacation. This is their weekend bender, bachelorette, or bachelor party, whatever. It changes the feel of the place. Tourists are taking up space and creating noise pollution. This has been a complaint amongst many locals in tropical and island destinations.
A great video focused on these kinds of changes and disruptions in Lisbon, Portugal. The interviewer was talking to locals about how they’re seeing all these local businesses disappear and how the area is being swamped with tourists. Just like in the Barcelona example we discussed earlier, locals can’t afford the neighborhood anymore.
Living like a local isn’t living like a local anymore when the locals can’t afford to live in that neighborhood.-Sam, Alternative Travelers
In the Barcelona example, one of the people interviewed was a young Spanish man living with his mom, his sister, and his sister’s baby. Him and his girlfriend wanted to move out and get their own place, but they couldn’t because prices had gone up so much.
The neighborhood had changed because of all the tourism, to the point where they didn’t even necessarily want to live there anymore. This is the neighborhood he had grown up in; he loved the neighborhood, but it had changed so much due to tourism, and due to the presence of Airbnb.
The Hidden Cost of Airbnb
Maybe right about now, you’re thinking, “But I’m a really respectful traveler! I’m not having an impact. I just want affordable accommodation.”
That’s probably true. We’d wager a guess that if you’re here in the first place, you’re trying to be more mindful of your travel habits. But at the same time, we can always strive to be more responsible travelers. That might mean not contributing to these things that have a harmful impact on the communities that you’re visiting.
When booking an Airbnb, the traveler is not paying the real cost of that place. Even though you’re getting a cheaper room at face value, you’re not paying the hidden cost that the existence of that Airbnb is having on local communities.
Since Airbnbs aren’t regulated like the hotel industry, basically anyone can list a room on Airbnb. Hotels must pay taxes for existing, and these taxes are reflected in room rates. They also must abide by safety protocols (smoke detectors, fire escapes and exits, etc.) that cost money.
We’ve read about stories of people being injured or even losing their lives because of certain unsafe conditions at an Airbnb. This is the minority of people staying at an Airbnb, of course. We’re not saying you stay at an Airbnb that you’re gonna die! You could stay in a hotel and have something could happen to you. But the regulations that hotels must abide by are very strict to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
Airbnb’s aren’t regulated. There’s very little that can happen if something happens to you in an Airbnb because there weren’t the right proper safety precautions in place.
Taking on The Airbnb Effect with Regulation
While individual habit changes can definitely help, regulation is an important facet to quelling the negative impacts of Airbnb. Communities around the world are starting to take matters into their own hands, especially now with the disruption of the pandemic. And while these aren’t immediate perfect solutions, regulations that are starting to happen are definitely steps in the right direction.
In Portland, if you want to put up an Airbnb, you can’t do it right away. There’s a waiting period in which the government sends over an inspector to make sure that safety guidelines are being followed, like having a carbon monoxide detector or making sure that there’s fire escapes. This is something that a hotel must comply with, but that normally isn’t required of Airbnb rentals.
Portland also only limits one Airbnb unit per resident and it has to be a residence that you live in. For example, you can’t own three properties and make two of them Airbnbs. This an important restriction because it prevents management companies or landlords from turning entire residential neighborhoods into Airbnbs. That’s so detrimental to the community and people trying to look for affordable housing.
Hotels, on the other hand, can only be in certain areas and neighborhoods. There are different kinds of zoning for different kinds of buildings. There’s a reason that hotels are built in specific areas.
So on some level, there needs to be some kind of regulation surrounding Airbnb. It depends on the place and the unique housing situation there.
The Airbnb Effect in Europe
Airbnb is a problem in so many European cities because the historic centers are not being built anymore. They’re finite, existing in a limited, small area that was built for before cars existed. They’re cute and pretty everyone wants to go there. That’s what people want to go to Europe to see these places. They want to stay there, live like a local, and stay in a cute little apartment to feel like they’re living the European dream.
But that dream is coming at a cost of a resident that could be living there. Personally, we wouldn’t feel that great about staying in a place that has potentially displaced someone else.
Respecting the place that you’re going to means respecting residents.
A lot of these European cities – maybe most of them honestly – are experiencing housing shortages. More and more people move to cities because of job opportunities, so finding housing is really hard. Many millions of people travel to Europe every year, exacerbating this issue. So many people aren’t thinking about the effect their accommodation choices has on locals, unfortunately.
Again, we’re not trying to say that this issue all falls on the shoulders of tourists and travelers and consumers. But we need to look critically at our part. As conscious consumers, we want to put our dollars where our values are, and put our money where our mouth is, so to speak.
The way a lot of people treat travel is another form of consumption and these industries, Airbnb included, treat it that way. Unfortunately when the demand gets so high, there’s significant amounts of money to be made.
The people who live there should be the priority, but instead it becomes the tourists’ well-being that becomes a priority.
We’ve seen that in cities like Florence, where it just didn’t feel like the city cared about its actual residents. Tourists were the priority.
Case Study: Spain
Spain is the second tourist destination in the world after Italy, so tourism an important part of their economy. But all tourism isn’t good tourism, and lot of the emerging Airbnb regulation is taking place in Spain. We suspect that this is because Spain prioritizes its residents and community, as we saw firsthand when living there.
Airbnb says, “we create jobs for locals,” but referring back to the gig economy again: how good is that option? Maybe there should be other options, and it is worth noting that Spain is trialing a basic income. Maybe we’ll see if that changes things, and people don’t need to list their apartment on Airbnb just to afford to live.
In Barcelona, there are many vacant apartments because the tourists aren’t there (due to the pandemic). The city just announced that owners of vacant apartments have a certain amount of time to fill those apartments or they will be seized and turned into affordable housing.
Barcelona in particular has been very impacted with overtourism. We have a friend who lives there and she’s really enjoying the city now that there’s no tourists there.
Another Spanish city that’s making regulation waves is the city of Palma, which is on Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands. People go there to party and Airbnb became very problematic. so Palma has also been on the forefront, as has Amsterdam in the Netherlands. They’re limiting if not outright banning Airbnbs in their historic center.
So a lot of these European cities are taking stock right now with the collapse of the tourism industry due to the pandemic. They’re trying to turn things around, something that’s been long overdue.
These problems have been brought up countless times by countless cities, so it’s hardly like the Airbnb effect is anything new. Whenever questioned about it, Airbnb has had a really shitty attitude towards it, which should come as no surprise because they don’t want anything to affect their bottom line. They just want to weasel their way out of any responsibility of looking into all of their listings, if they’re legal or not. Because unfortunately, it’s one thing to have regulations, but another thing for them to be enforced.
Case Study: Japan
The last example of regulation that we want to point out is related to protecting communities and places that have a strong emphasis on community. A couple of years ago, Japan rolled out sweeping Airbnb laws. There’s an overarching law that is you have to provide a record of everyone that stays in your Airbnb and you can only have a certain number of days listed. But then certain municipalities have specific laws.
One area of Tokyo decided that in certain areas, you can’t rent out your place on Airbnb during the week because they don’t want children coming across strangers on their way to school. The Japanese care about their kids so much that they don’t want their kids to come across random ass tourists on their way to school.
It’s very typical for Japanese families to send their little kids solo to school. That’s how much they trust in the safety of their communities, so it’s not a crazy thing to see an eight-year-old riding a train to school. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we could give that kind of level of responsibility to our children and not have to worry about them?
Another Japanese city passed a law stating that Airbnb owners had to have a caretaker of the property live within ten minutes of that property. So that minimizes investors who buy up whole blocks. Of course, they could still pay someone to live nearby, but this law makes it more difficult for those things to happen.
It also forces Airbnb owners to involve local people and have more of a connection to the places in which they’re doing business. It gives more accountability for the community to directly communicate with people on the ground.
Airbnb’s Role in Gentrification and Racial Disparity: NYC Case Study
The impact of Airbnb on communities takes many forms, most insidious being contributing indirectly to racial disparities and inequities.
Inside Airbnb did a study of Airbnb in New York and discovered a huge racial disparity and inequities in listings. They looked at neighborhoods across New York, and what they found was that in black neighborhoods the hosts were five times more likely to be white.
In these predominantly Black neighborhoods, 85% percent African American and 14% percent white (1% “other”), Airbnb hosts were 75% White. So basically, in majority black neighborhoods there were a majority of white hosts. And majority white Airbnb customers.
This speaks to a number of things, number one being the privilege and ability to own property in the first place. White owners are quite literally benefiting from and capitalizing off of the coolness factor of neighborhoods like Crown Heights or Bushwick in Brooklyn. In Bushwick, the disparity was found to be the greatest. Bushwick has long been an industrial artist neighborhood because people could afford to live in the junky, shitty lofts. Artists moved there and the area became cool, leading to tourists wanting an “alternative” experience to stay there in order to “live like a local.”
But again, Airbnb is tearing apart the fabric of these communities, Black communities in particular. It’s exploitative and extractive. The money being made because of that neighborhood coolness is not going back into the community.
Unfortunately, there is no accountability on the part of Airbnb, such as if a certain percentage of the profits had to go right back into the community. But as of now, that doesn’t seem to be the case whatsoever.
The larger issue of gentrification is a multifaceted issue with many factors at play. The great book, Generation Priced Out, explains all the different factors across a variety of U.S. cities, since gentrification varies a bit per city. Living in New York city, we’ve seen gentrification in many forms. A lot of times, it’s hard to tell if those are people that are just transplants moving in part of the gentrification waves, or if they’re tourists.
So you can’t demonize or blame or find a villain for that one problem. As soon as someone’s trying to point out a villain, it oversimplifies the problem. That doesn’t mean to cut any slack to a corporation like Airbnb. These entities that wield a ton of power and should be held accountable by the people they affect: their workers and the customers.
What can We Do As Responsible Travelers?
So…with all that in mind, what can we do as travelers?
We don’t think it needs to be a blanket: never use Airbnb. But we do need to do our research and see if Airbnb is an issue. In European cities, it’s very problematic. For that reason, we wouldn’t recommend using Airbnb in historic European cities or places where it’s a known issue.
When looking at places to stay in a particular place, make this part of your research. It’s as easy as googling “Airbnb efect in X place.” Basically, look into it. But across the board, in places where there are housing issues, Airbnb exacerbates that issue.
It’s a different thing to rent out someone’s room in the countryside when you’re road tripping. Maybe the person has a big house or backyard cottage and they rent out an extra room. That’s not displacing anyone. So just look at the situation wherever you want to go.
We’ve had positive experiences using Airbnb ethically. For example, when we were in Berlin, we found a place to stay that was well outside the center but it was close enough via bike shares. Basically, the guy whose room we stayed in was going on a week long bike trip and was just trying to make sure he could still cover rent. We messaged him before booking and he was very explicit about the situation, that this was not some room that they were constantly Airbnbing out on a regular. He just figured, well if I’m gonna be gone for a week and a half two weeks, might as well make that difference up.
It was a house of about four or five people, and we met the person we rented from and their roommates. It worked out great and was a very interesting experience. We got to talk to the other roommates, who were more than happy to share stuff about the city, like their favorite places to go and visit.
So those kinds of positive experiences can occur, but now that is harder to find and requires more research. You can’t expect Airbnb to do that for you anymore. We do these kind of things all the time with purchases on some level, you know, you go to a store to buy something, you make sure it doesn’t have like a hole in the package or a seal’s broken, you know things that are seemingly simple but just being more conscious consumers.
Often, you can tell just by looking at listings which ones are investor owned. They look designed for Airbnb. They have super nice furniture and everything’s done with perfect, professional photos.
We’re not saying to stay in a dump obviously! The place we stayed at in Berlin was nice and it was cheap too, because he was literally just trying to cover his rent. So when looking at listings, talk to the person and get a feel for the situation. Of course they can lie and do the bait and switch, which is becoming more common too. If you get the sense that someone is lying to you and just trying to appease you so that you’ll book, that’s probably a sign that something is off.
That being said, we try not to use Airbnb that much and we avoid it in places where we know it’s a critical issue. We’d rather not go if we can’t afford the accommodation. Another vote for off season travel and alternative destinations!
Alternatives to Airbnb
Airbnb likes to call itself part of the sharing economy. But clearly it’s gotten away from that a bit. Luckily, if you want to explore the world in an affordable way, avoiding Airbnb, there are plenty of alternatives.
An example of actual accommodation sharing would be house sitting. We love house sitting and are normally (in non-pandemic times) full-time house sitters. It’s very clearly an exchange. Someone is leaving their house for a trip. We stay there while they’re gone and take care of their pets. It’s pretty straightforward and you’re not displacing anyone.
Couchsurfing is another example of accommodation sharing and another way to interact with locals in a meaningful way. No money is involved, so the person wasn’t trying to rent that place out anyway. We’ve done some couch surfing across the U.S. and in Europe, and have always enjoyed it.
You could also do a home swap, where someone stays in your home while you stay in theirs. That’s something we’ve never done because we don’t have a home, but if you have one, you could swap your home.
Obviously there’s trust involved with all of the above examples, but there’s trust involved with Airbnb too. But as it has gotten away from the sharing economy, it’s become less about that trust and become more transactional instead.
Back to Basics: Hostels, Hotels, and Bed and Breakfasts
Apart from participating in the sharing economy, you could go back to basics: stay in a hotel, hostel, or B&B, the original bed and breakfast.
A lot of bed and breakfasts actually list on Airbnb as a way to increase their visibility. We understand why and aren’t not faulting any bed and breakfast owners for listing on Airbnb when they can get more bookings that way. But actual bed and breakfasts will abide by hotel regulations.
More and more ethical booking sites are popping up, check out more in our article: 20 Sustainable Travel Tips for the Conscious Traveler.
Unfortunately, it took a huge tragedy – the pandemic – for these kinds of things to be highlighted. Certain cities and communities have a chance to try to approach these problems now that there’s not a huge flow of money drowning out their voices.
And admittedly, one of the biggest obstacles to people trying to be more responsible travelers is the work involved: “oh I’m going on vacation. I shouldn’t have to think about these things.”
But the pandemic has shown that the world is more connected than ever and our choices directly impact others. It’s a luxury and a privilege to be able to consume and make certain choices where you don’t need to face the consequences of those choices. We can’t just wait for things to correct themselves because in that process you can potentially damage whole communities and people’s livelihoods.
We want to show you that it is possible, it takes a little bit more work, but it doesn’t need to be particularly hard to be more responsible tourist and traveler. Yes, there are other forces at play, but as an individual, we can always try to make more responsible choices.
Airbnb has a goal of having a billion guests by 2028. That’s right around the corner, and they’re not thinking about how they’re impacting communities at all. They’ve been nothing but dismissive about these issues. So the negative impats of Airbnb are not gonna be solved by Airbnb themselves, that’s for sure. While city governments are stepping in and creating regulations, individual action can go a long way towards more sustainable and responsible options being available.
Hope you found this helpful and insightful about thinking about Airbnb’s role in place in future travels!