The three saddest words in the English language, thundered that cantankerous old brahmin, Gore Vidal, were ‘Joyce Carol Oates.’
Whatever the poor lady may have done to earn such vilification, her supposed infamy has since, I would earnestly suggest, been supplanted by three very different words which are not just sad, but also terrifying and duplicitous: ‘The Airbnb community.’
The effect conveyed, on the face of it, is comforting and homely, rather like a New England quilting bee. The word ‘community’ hints at some happy millenarian utopia where the cares of our troubled world just melt away. This heart-warming benediction is predictably updated with the soft-focus joy of a wholesome girl in a 2015 advertisement backed by a $22.5m promotional budget. Perpetually smiling, she is clearly having the time of her life in Mexico, Brazil, Japan and other hotspots. Her carbon footprint can only be of alarming proportions.
As with Coca-Cola wanting to teach the world to sing in perfect har-mon-ee almost 50 years ago (yes, it was 1971), it is as well to remember that such exercises in manipulative marketing are driven by factors other than a selfless executive urge to spread universal fun and happiness. Airbnb’s mission, we are solemnly informed, is ‘to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere’, a world in which ‘hosts always are and always will be the heart and soul of our community.’
All very Woodstock, man, even if it does lack the spontaneous hippy energy and the cool riffs, but let’s examine the sub-text. This is really about money, lots and lots of it. Admittedly, Airbnb doesn’t actually shirk this point when it thinks it appropriate, proudly announcing last September:
The Airbnb community has passed another milestone; there are more than 7 million Airbnb listings in over 100,000 cities around the world, more listings than the eight largest hotel groups have rooms, combined…Approximately six guests check into an Airbnb listing every second and these check-ins are happening all around the world: no single city accounts for more than roughly 1 percent of Airbnb guest arrivals or listings… As our community has grown, our business has thrived. The second quarter of 2019 marked the second quarter in our history in which Airbnb revenue exceeded $1 billion.
This positive buzz is perhaps a case of scattering rose petals ahead of Airbnb’s planned flotation, but it comes with a downside. Airbnb has been cutting though the world’s cities like a scythe, packing ancient streets to bursting. In Edinburgh there were a mere eight Airbnb registered properties in 2009. Ten years later the 12,000 listed had overtaken the number of private rental homes in the Scottish capital. In London, things are so bad that Mayor Sadiq Khan has issued an edict (implemented by Airbnb) constraining householders from letting their rooms for more than 90 days a year.
In Barcelona, the ratio of tourists to residents is five to one, with about 9m tourists in short-term-let flats. In Lisbon the ratio is nine to one, while around 1000 Florentines are quitting their city every year, either fleeing over-tourism or evicted to make way for short term lets. Venice is succumbing to 25m tourists a year and anticipates 35m five years from now, as the resident population continues to shrink.
Other cities have had problems with Airbnb, though few as dramatic as last year’s Airbnb California Halloween shoot-out which left five dead, or similar events in a Toronto Airbnb party house. New York’s Mayor Bill De Blasio has spent $6m enforcing action against illegal listings since he was elected. Quebec has been cracking down on Airbnb on grounds of visitor safety. The Australian beach resort of Broome has cracked down even harder, as has Majorca.
Berlin has banned apartment rentals through Airbnb. Paris has imposed a maximum letting period of 120 days, with fines on owners in breach rising tenfold in the first half of 2017. Last year Barcelona fined Airbnb €600,000 for its persistence in advertising unlicensed lets on its global platform, while Amsterdam cut its 60-day Airbnb letting limit by half. Venice, Dubrovnik, New Orleans, San Sebastian, have all resisted the ‘hollowing out’ effect of the Airbnb epidemic. And Edinburgh? Oh dear! We seem to be only just catching up. Indeed, as next year’s census is likely to reveal, the city centre has long passed the point of no return. (The scale is bigger than the Guardian reports, with 7336 houses/flats for Airbnb alone, plus other operators.)
Whether or not there have been any reported rapes with Airbnb, as with other sites, there have certainly been problems, including burglary, vandalism, and prostitution. One host discovered that his guest was a crystal meth addict who’d trashed his apartment, taking everything of value including his birth certificate. What if you were the parent of a budget-savvy 18 year-old college girl vacationing on the cheap, would you be happy about her drifting around the world from one unvetted home to another? The vast majority, of course, would be perfectly safe. However, just occasionally, things might not be quite so rosy. In one case, an Airbnb host in Las Vegas was charged with placing concealed cameras to capture ‘private’ images of his unsuspecting guests.
Good and bad
Admittedly, Airbnb isn’t the only on-line rental platform, so it shouldn’t be singled out for blame; but as a global monster it deserves its monster share. Nor is it all bad, by any means. Just as there were ‘good banks’ and ‘bad banks’ after the 2008 economic crash, so there is a ‘good’ Airbnb and a ‘bad’ Airbnb. The ‘good’ Airbnb is the one in which a financially strapped owner can make a bit of pin money by hosting the occasional visitor in a spare room which would otherwise be empty. I have a friend who not only bridged her mortgage between jobs, but also met some wonderful people through Airbnb.
The bad Airbnb, on the other hand, is very bad indeed. In this version, Edinburgh Old Town’s residential centre gets hollowed out in a rerun of the Highland clearances, though instead of being replaced by sheep, the occupants are making way for hens, stags, rugger gadabouts in search of a good alcohol-fuelled time, and pop-up brothels. The calculating landlordism now taking over is wholly investment-driven, and it’s been buying up the Old Town stair by stair. In fact, it’s been buying up anywhere it can, including Western Harbour, between Leith and Granton, which had so many Airbnb lets the operator set up a laundry and had 40 or so flats virtually operating as a hotel.
The results are dispiriting. The Airbnb refugee – your writer being one – is often the last authentic resident in a block succumbing to portfolio investors who in many cases live overseas, are prepared to buy sight unseen, and have minimal interest in roof repairs. It isn’t just residents who suffer. The Financial Times, courtesy of a research report by analysts at Morgan Stanley, has revealed that the profitable antics of Airbnb in the UK are undermining the hotel trade, so all these hotels being shoehorned into every available Edinburgh site might not be such clever investments after all.
We might consider, too, the impact of terrorist events on North American visitor numbers, or the imminent drop in Chinese tourists to the UK from just under 400,000 in 2018 to virtually zero in the coming year, thanks to the coronavirus epidemic. With Edinburgh the top Chinese UK destination after London (170,000 visited the city in 2017), the impact will be severe.
Main image of Edinburgh Old Town: ©Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
End of Part One. In Part Two David Black examines ‘how did this Frankenstein come about?’ and analyses Airbnb’s planned flotation (IPO). Floating on Airbeds