Airbnb has changed the face of many cities and ‘destroyed communities.’ Now the residents are fighting back – and it looks like the legislators are on their side. But there are signs that Airbnb will not go quietly. The battle lines have been drawn…
I hope you are enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend. And only another three weeks until Whitsuntide rolls around. Well, ‘Whitsuntide’ if you are as old as me. The late May Bank Holiday, or whatever it is now called if you are under 30…
But with two Bank Holidays in the month – and then summer stretching in front of us – plenty of us will be thinking about getting away for a few days. And for a great many people, that will mean accommodation through Airbnb.
The traditional B&B – bed and breakfast – was the mainstay of the English seaside holiday. A week in Scarborough, and you would be staying with Mrs Simpson at Bay View. In by 10 pm please, breakfast is served at 7:30 sharp and you want what? A poached egg? ‘We do eggs fried or boiled at Bay View, thank you very much. Don’t hold wi’ none o’ that foreign nonsense.’
Welcome to Airbnb
Airbnb was founded just over 10 years ago in San Francisco. The legend is that the founders – Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharcyzk put an air mattress in their apartment and turned it into a B&B. In 2017 the company generated $2.6bn in revenue, giving the company an operating income of $450m – and it has several subsidiaries around the world.
The company simply acts as a broker. If you have a room – or a house/flat/apartment – that you want to rent out you put it on Airbnb and they take a commission. If you are looking for a property you can search using any number of filters such as type of property, location and price.
Airbnb and controversy
Airbnb has had its share of controversy in its ten-year history. There are, for example, suggestions that the review system discourages people from leaving negative reviews – in case property owners turn them down in the future.
There are have been reports – some unsubstantiated, true, but enough to make you take notice – of hosts covertly filming guests and, in 2017, Airbnb cancelled the bookings of customers attending a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But by far the biggest cause of controversy has been the overall effect Airbnb has had on cities and neighbourhoods within those cities, driving property prices up, changing the character of some districts and disadvantaging local people who are not renting out their property.
Airbnb and Amsterdam
One of the most visited cities in Europe is Amsterdam – and homeowners there were quick to start renting out their properties on Airbnb. But, like many cities, what was initially seen as a good idea quickly started to have a negative effect as property prices soared and the character of some districts in the city changed. As one local resident in Amsterdam put it,
“Airbnb drives up real estate prices that are already soaring. Neighbourhood business that creates ties between residents are replaced by businesses that focus only on tourists. Bike rental companies replace local grocery shops. And apartments that are continuously rented out to tourists are lost to people who actually want to live here.”
So Amsterdam is fighting back against Airbnb. The city – which expected 18m visitors last year – has a new city council, and it is aiming to follow the lead of cities like Barcelona and Venice, seeking to help locals ‘fight back’ against what has been described as a ‘tsunami of tourists.’
Amsterdam’s new coalition city government wants to direct tourists away from ‘sex and cannabis’ towards the city’s more cultural tourist attractions. So Airbnb – and other home rentals – will be banned in the busiest neighbourhoods, and restricted to 30 days a year in other parts of the city.
In addition, the tourist tax is being raised to 7% – which should bring the city around €105m (£90m) a year – and restrictions are also being placed on cruise ships.
Whether this will tip the balance back in favour of Amsterdam’s locals remains to be seen. What is clear, though, is that plenty more cities will be watching the Amsterdam initiative very carefully.
Will we see the same in the UK?
In 2017 there was a surge in Airbnb listings in Scotland, and nowhere in that country is visited more than Edinburgh, which receives around 4m visitors a year – nowhere near the numbers that go to Amsterdam, but still a very significant number for a city with a population of around 500,000.
It is also home to a big student population, one of which is my youngest son. He rents his flat from September to June. Why? Because in July and August the flat is rented out through Airbnb as visitors flock to the city in general and the Edinburgh Festival in particular.
For many in Edinburgh Airbnb has had the same effect as in Amsterdam. One resident echoes the views heard there:
“The community has been destroyed by the fact that all these residential properties that could be homes are now businesses. I’m the last owner-occupier in my stair [block of flats] and half the flat are now holiday lets. You no longer have local shops and services for local people.”
So, like an ever-increasing number of cities, Edinburgh is fighting back. Landlords have been banned from renting out entire flats in areas where there is a high concentration of flats. Airbnb is not taking it lying down, though, and has been lobbying the Scottish Government to stop the law change. It seems difficult to imagine the Scottish Nationalists siding with Airbnb over local residents – but whoever said politicians acted logically?
The only certainty is that the residents vs. Airbnb battle will continue. And if – as seems increasingly likely – the residents win, Mrs Simpson at Bay View will be rubbing her hands. And you can forget about your poached egg…