Maybe Airbnb Gets Hotels Right, but it Gets Housing Wrong (via NextCity)

Cities need one of these, too

Cities need one of these, too

Last week I wrote about the recent run of bad news for Airbnb, particularly in New York City. I wanted to spend this week talking about Airbnb as a philosophical matter.  Airbnb has always struck me as a good small idea but a terrible big idea. That's because it doesn't understand housing and isn't designed to.  We are finally starting to see why that is such a large problem for certain cities.

The idea as a traveller is awesome.  While traveling for my previous startup company, I used Airbnb many times across the country and have had enjoyable experiences with just about all of them. I have stayed with people renting a room, I have rented an entire apartment, and I have used what were clearly professional listings.  I have never used it as a host (way too much of a risk in my building since it's rent-stabilized) but I can see how some of the hosts I have stayed with have benefited from using that spare room for renters.  This small scale implementation of technology was revolutionary and gave travelers a lot more options in the market (keeping the hotel industry honest is fine by me.)  It also gave people feeling the squeeze after the recession a chance to earn some extra money. There just isn't much to find fault with in this model. 

But I have been bothered by the professionalization of Airbnb, both by its users and as a company.  As a housing advocate, it was clear to me that Airbnb would have its 'Come to Jesus Moment' at some point over its basic contradiction. It's one thing to offer these options to travelers and hosts in a limited setting.  It's another to predicate a multi-billion dollar business model on the income insecurity of its users or on the professional arbitrage of the rental housing market.  

The 'share economy' has always been a misnomer hiding a much more problematic economic shift towards outsourcing responsibility/liability, undermining employment stability, and erasing consumer protections. Airbnb has disappointingly drifted further into this world and the consequences for many neighborhoods and long-term renters has started to become apparent.

That's a good word to come back to: share. Airbnb has clearly failed to understand or care about what it means to share.  It certainly doesn't understand what shared living actually is, particularly in NYC.  It's true that most New Yorkers don't know their neighbors, but that doesn't mean they don't care about who lives in their building.  It also doesn't mean that they share nothing.  

People choose to live in a city, a neighborhood, a building, and a unit for a complex set of reasons and variables. All those reasons and variables that connect a group of people at a given time to a given physical place connect them in other ways that might not be so obvious, but exist nonetheless. These people add unique experiences, services, and ideas to their communities for however long they remain there. Because of this, over time a neighborhood forms an identity from those collaborations and conflicts that makes it both unique and universal.  By sharing a place, purposefully or incidentally, people have shaped it.

Airbnb disrupts this, and not in the way it disrupts the hotel industry.  The person with that lease, whether it's the landlord or a professional lister, is still sharing that space with all of those people in their building and their neighborhood. There is a profound responsibility that comes with that whether they acknowledge it or not.   The host has chosen to disengage from their home by turning into an commodity. Maybe they have the right to, maybe they don't have the right to, that is almost beside the point. 

The more salient point is that, in this context, they are also forcing their neighbors to make that choice by turning the neighborhood into a commodity as well.  The host has forced their neighbors to become just a little bit less engaged and connected to their home.  It's impossible to avoid if that neighbor see strangers coming and going constantly, regardless of how nice the majority of them surly are.  It's not just that they aren't benefiting financially from that choice, it's that they are incurring the majority of the social costs and losing what they thought their home was when they moved in.  Maybe the Airbnb renter is okay with being in a cheaper 'hotel', but the actual neighborhood didn't sign a lease to live in any kind of hotel.

Multiply the types of trade-offs that come with Airbnb across an entire neighborhood and what we are left with is Hipster Disney World - albeit one that looks and maybe feels 'authentic' in a superficial sense, but one that has stopped functioning as a neighborhood is supposed to. Instead, it becomes experiential marketing, make-believe for lifestyle tourists. Inevitably this devolves a neighborhood into some bland version of any other type of similar neighborhood or a kitschy version of itself.  

I see this all the time where I live in the East Village.  I go out for coffee on Avenue B every morning and see a genuinely nice European couple with roller bags looking up from their smartphones at apartment building numbers.  I know they are there because they want to get away from the touristy parts of NYC and experience what the locals see, but that just makes me feel like I'm a performer on their vacation.  They go home after a week of experiencing the East Village and another nice couple comes behind them.

As for the East Village, those are people that I can't build a local connection with, who won't be there at a Community Board meeting to voice their opinion about the East River ferry, or at an MTA meeting about the potential L train shutdown, or at a meeting about the lunch food at the East Village Community School.  Their primary contribution instead is inadvertently putting pressure on my rent.  I don't doubt that most Airbnbers are curious, self-aware people and that they don't want to have that kind of an impact.  But the bottomline is clear: the more units devoted to Airbnb, the less there are for people who would be there to advocate for our neighborhood. 

You are left with two types of residents: A rotating door of short-term visitors who won't provide the types of contributions a thriving neighborhood needs or an increasingly isolated and detached pool of long-term residents that no longer feel invested enough to contribute to their neighborhood.  

You might ask: "well, what is a neighborhood supposed to be?" and "who gets to say that it should be one thing over another?"  That's fair.  I don't know the answer to that, nor do I really think there is an answer.  Of course there are countless types of neighborhoods that function in any number of capacities for any number of purposes.  And they change over time. Of course. 

The built environment is an artificial construct.  There isn't anything organic about how a city is built or organized.  Sure, there may be more rational ways to organize them than others, but those definitions are themselves subjective, ironed out through conflict and compromise, and ultimately evolve as society evolves.  The point is that there are stakeholders in these neighborhoods that are constantly struggling to define what that neighborhood is.  It might not always be pretty, or fair, but it is vital.

That's why Airbnb's impact on certain neighborhoods is so unprecedented and troubling.  If Airbnb cared about the neighborhoods it serves, it would consider the concerns of all stakeholders.  (Even 'bad' landlords are ultimately looking for long-term residents to live in their properties whether they are renting or purchasing.) But Airbnb is built on the opposite premise.  It wants more and more people to host on Airbnb and wants more and more people to visit on Airbnb.  It's model only values the vibrancy of a neighborhood relative to how attractive it is for tourists to visit.

Again, maybe this is okay for a person with a spare room once in a while, or for a couple going out of town once in a blue moon, but that's not what Airbnb wants to happen.  It can't justify its valuation to investors if it is there just to help people make a little extra money or save a little money traveling.  Airbnb, whether they admit it or not, succeeds at the expense of neighborhoods.  That's the logical extension of their market.

Is there a way to take the positives of Airbnb, what it gets right about hotels, and remove what it gets wrong about housing? I'd like to think so.  I have had enough positive experiences with Airbnb on a micro-level to see how a different model could find that balance. I just don't think it's going to come from a $30 billion Silicon Valley company. It seems like a lot of local governments are coming to the same conclusion.