If you haven’t heard of Airbnb, then we’ll try to introduce it as straightforwardly as possible.
It’s this service where hosts rent out parts of (or all of) their homes to travelers, like a hotel but cheaper, or like a bed-and-breakfast but more personal, or like a hostel but nicer. It’s objectively amazing and terrible all at the same time.
If you’re thinking about using Airbnb, whether you want to stay at one or rent out your own place, then you ought to know the downsides of it as well as the upsides.
Is it bad because the hosts are creepy? Is it bad because the guests trash your house? Well, um… that certainly does happen every so often, but it’s not quite an epidemic, and you’ve probably already heard stories like that. What you may not have heard is the negative impact Airbnb-ing has on the world around it.
The Rent is Too Darn High
There are two kinds of Airbnb hosts: people who rent out the space they live in, and landlords who rent out entire homes (usually apartments) on Airbnb year-round and never open the place up as a permanent residence as it’s supposed to be. This second type of hosting is causing actual serious issues.
Why? The biggest and most obvious problem is they’re taking rental properties off the market. Anybody who’s ever taken a cursory course on economics knows how supply and demand works – or maybe you just guessed where this was going by the title of this section.
The scarcity of rentals drives up the prices of the remaining rentals because supply got lower and demand got higher. Because the people who need to rent typically aren’t made of money, this means people who have nothing to do with Airbnb are being negatively affected.
To recap the damages of: there are fewer places for people to live; the places that are available for rent are now more expensive, both for prospective renters and for the current renters; and in severe cases, a neighborhood might be struggling to retain actual residents as landlords rent out entire buildings as Airbnb’s like an illegal hotel.
That’s right – illegal. Around the country and around the world, city officials are trying to prevent this kind of manipulation of the Airbnb system.
The laws typically don’t outright ban Airbnb so much as they restrict how many days a year a dwelling can be up for “short-term rental.” Nevertheless, there’s a very real chance an Airbnb in a densely-populated major city is operating illegally.
In the United States, New York City and San Francisco have already put laws like this into place, joining a few other world cities like Paris, Singapore and Barcelona. These cities’ governments understand the problems that come with an apartment building being so crowded and yet so empty.
By the way, even when an apartment on Airbnb isn’t being run by a crooked slumlord, it could still be illegal, and in more places than just San-Fran and NYC.
There’s been a separate problem of renters illegally subletting rooms without their landlord’s permission. What can we say? Renting out space is a lucrative business.
Even beyond the issue of Airbnb eating up the rental-home market, some have noted issues with the Airbnb model that have nothing to do with shady business.
When you stay at an Airbnb, you may be staying with your host, or you might be staying there alone while the host is out of town. You will most certainly not be staying with a cleaning crew or bellhops inside the building.
It’s good if you aren’t reliant on service workers like that to enjoy a trip, but think of it this way: those are fewer jobs on the market.
Airbnb is a long way from erasing the hotel industry, but it certainly has enough steam to make a dent in it. If even one hotel closes, that’s going to leave some people without a job.
You could claim we’re overthinking this, but we’ll take that claim and raise you this: Airbnb’s are spatially inefficient.
You know how the big thing now is to be conscious of your carbon footprint, downsize, and use as little as possible? Under these rules, many claim staying at a hotel is less wasteful than borrowing somebody’s entire house.
Here’s a controversial discussion some have had: a big appeal of Airbnb is you have access to a real kitchen. But do you need a kitchen?
Some argue it’s not only wasteful, but you’re hurting the local economy by not eating at local restaurants, not to mention you’re missing out on experiencing the local culture.
But wait, there’s more! Other people argue it’s better to have that kitchen and to make your own food because not only is it probably healthier, but it would save you money, and didn’t you choose Airbnb to save money in the first place?
We haven’t made up our minds on the pro- or anti-kitchen debate, but as you can see, it’s a genuinely contentious topic. It seems the best way to put it is that Airbnb often operates in the morally gray area.
This is Not a Smear Campaign
When it’s not being abused, Airbnb can be a great opportunity for plenty of people. It can give homeowners a chance to make some extra money with a space they aren’t using. It can also allow people to travel at a price they can afford when they otherwise wouldn’t have been able.
It can bring more tourists into a city and boost its economy, and it can be a great contingency plan for those traveling on short notice who find all the hotels are booked.
When the guests and hosts are both on their best behavior, they can all have a good time with one another, and might even wind up making friends for life.
Like a lot of things in life, Airbnb is a nice thing that some bad people are ruining by exploiting a loophole.
As a guest, you should do your research on a place to make sure you’re not enabling those illicit operations; as a host, you should know the laws in your locality and make sure you’re not inadvertently doing more harm than good.
Airbnb is not evil, but it does need to be fixed, and yet it seems it’s gotten too big for it to be able to fully keep itself in check, so frustrated cities are stepping up to do the check-keeping.
Time will tell if the Airbnb model will sort itself out or if it’s simply unsustainable – or, third option, if a competitor will come along and leave Airbnb in the dust, making it another innovator which couldn’t keep up in the game it invented.