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Airbnb In Your Neighborhood

Arts & Culture | April 27, 2015

Airbnb is deftly capitalizing on a new class of tourism, appealing to a new types of tourist with specific priorities: the “anti-tourist.” The anti-tourist is searching for authenticity, not destinations; for participation, not observation. They want to tap into local networks and culture and they believe that visiting a new city is more than just seeing the typical cultural touch points. Above all, the anti-tourist seeks a genuine experience. This shifting paradigm of travel is enshrined in Airbnb’s tagline “#belonganywhere.” Referred to as a “Pinterest with direct booking,” by Jason Clampet, a co-founder of Skift, a website that analyzes the travel industry, Airbnb combines tourism and social media. This global phenomenon is changing the way that we travel and experience new cultures. In the process, Airbnb is catalyzing gentrification in many of the world’s cities.

Travelers are drawn to Airbnb for its array of convenient features, from transparent feedback to easy discovery of new vacation destinations. By building on an online infrastructure of travel sharing pioneered by sites like Couchsurfing and FlipKey, Airbnb allows tourists to book using a familiar platform. Furthermore, AirBnB contributes to the decentralization of power over the lodging industry, granting homeowners a say in the tourism trends in their own cities. Most importantly, Airbnb derives its authenticity from finding lodging for guests in areas of the city where there aren’t hotels and tourist centers. The benefits of Airbnb are enormous; however, many don’t consider its effects on communities. There are reasons to be wary of the anti-tourist and the hyper-drive for niche housing.

Tourists in pursuit of short-term rentals in local neighborhoods will inadvertently take units off the long-term rental market. Airbnb has been under scrutiny in New York City, where the Multiple Dwelling Law states that it is illegal to rent out an apartment in a residential building for short-term stays under 30 days. With the New York City housing crisis, the city can’t afford the large-scale conversion of apartments to hotels. Because renting out a property short-term is more lucrative than long-term rental, owners are choosing to rent out their spaces to Airbnb users rather than prioritizing New York residents in need of housing. Based on Skift calculations, “…some 6,000 units may be off the rental market” because of Airbnb. This dichotomy will undoubtedly push the housing market toward higher-end and shorter-term rentals. This trend is code for gentrification. Ultimately, this excess of short-term housing reduces the number of affordable units available to lower income city dwellers. A Slate article described a San Francisco citizen who “…is suing his landlord for unjust eviction…allegedly so his landlord could list [his apartment] on Airbnb.”

Airbnb is not only contributing to a conversion of the housing market, but also generating influxes of short-term visitors that impact a neighborhood. No matter how carefully guests are vetted, a constant rotation of neighbors degrades other residents’ quality of life. The inundation of tourists results in other disruptions to communities outside of the tourist sphere, such as the tokenization of authenticity. Are Airbnb tourists, intent on receiving the genuine experience, fetishizing the local culture without thinking about what it means for an outsider to “explore another culture”? Using Airbnb as a quest for culture is exploitative, and guests need to think critically about defining the local culture and the privilege of experiencing it.

But is the niche that Airbnb occupies less intrusive than mega hotels with no attachment to the local culture or people? In thinking about tourism’s impact on local residents, is Airbnb the lesser of two evils? In April 2015, Airbnb began expanding its offerings to Cuba, which will allow tourists access to previously destinations. The rental-sharing site will grant rapid access to the island locale by opening pre-existing homes to foreigners long before new American hotels are constructed.

In comparison to large, impersonal hotels, which inadvertently alter the preexisting community, Airbnb tourism is still gentrifying, but less so. And it does have certain benefits for communities. By interspersing Airbnb tourism with the existing locale, tourism dollars are brought into new markets without causing large population displacement. Co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk further explains, “Think about the big hotel chains coming in, with mass development. The idea here is to support growth and travel that isn’t disruptive.” Airbnb embodies the new sharing economy by spreading its dollars over a variety of neighborhoods, not just tourist destinations. In fact, the most popular neighborhoods often lack hotels. In New York, Harlem has few hotels, but over 1,000 Airbnb listings. Furthermore, Airbnb decentralizes power in the tourist industry; large hotel chains no longer have a monopoly over lodging. Rather, people can participate in the process and take greater control over tourism in their cities.

However, these intentions, if poorly framed and lacking critical reflection, can severely tokenize the cultures that tourists hope to appreciate. Airbnb has served and will continue to serve as a catalyzer of gentrification. Herein lies the irony of Airbnb: if short-term rentals go on to dominate the housing market, locals will be pushed out of their respective neighborhoods, thus disrupting the authentic community and degrading the “genuine” experience that Airbnb promises its users.

Art by Nina Hofkosh-Hulbert.
Icons by Mawra Boukarim and Megan Mitchell.