The Website That Exposes Airbnb's Parasitic Impact on New York City
Airbnb has permeated New York City’s housing market and its impact has been parasitic. Since its creation, the apartment-rental startup has been praised as a shining example of collaborative consumption, but like many aspects of the “sharing economy,” there’s a dark underbelly to its success. Some of the most disturbing details can be gleaned from the new website, Inside Airbnb. The site, and its interactive NYC map, are the work of activist Murray Cox. I caught up with Cox to discuss his findings and the emerging fight against Airbnb.
Michael Arria: What inspired you to create the website?
Murray Cox: There were a few things that inspired and motivated me to create the Inside Airbnb website. Firstly, I noticed the marketing campaigns that Airbnb ran in the New York City subways last year stating that "Airbnb was great for New York."
At the same time it was widely reported that many Airbnb hosts were operating illegal hotels and that neither the hosts nor Airbnb were collecting taxes. There was an active and public debate in Albany about the laws, and a legal battle to get Airbnb to release data on how their rental platform was being used.
I get suspicious when a company engages in a public relations campaign while laws are being debated by elected officials, or in the courts. It seemed that Airbnb was being completely unaccountable to the community, yet asking for the laws to be changed for their benefit.
I was also inspired by work I did over the summer with DIVAS for Social Justice at the Weeksville Heritage Center. We taught young children from the neighborhood about gentrification using STEAM subjects. My contribution was to use statistics and maps to allow the students to understand some of the forces that shaped and is now changing their community. That experience, and seeing the reaction from the public to various exhibitions of the student's work made me realize that data-driven storytelling about the world around us and important issues is very powerful.
MA: Did your findings confirm your suspicions? Did they surprise you?
MC: I started off just looking for data on Airbnb in my neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in central Brooklyn. I knew of a few people in my community that rent out entire apartments in their multi-family homes via Airbnb, and based on other data I had seen, I suspected that this might be widespread.
Once I saw the data for my neighborhood, it both confirmed my suspicions and surprised me. At least 1,224 Airbnb listings were on the Airbnb website for Bedford-Stuyvesant, with 633 (51.7%) of those being for an "entire home/apartment." Looking at the calendars and reviews for the entire homes/apartments, I found that more than 90% of them were available for more than 60 days out of the year, and on average received a review from a guest once a month.
This directly refuted Airbnb's claims that "87 percent of Airbnb hosts share the home in which they live." And more importantly, 633 is a large number of apartments being taken off the long-term housing market in a neighborhood with historic records of homelessness, displacement and reduced housing affordability.
In addition, 43.5% of the listings in Bedford-Stuyvesant were by hosts with more than one listing, sometimes multiple entire apartments or multiple rooms in an apartment building. This is not a story of "sharing" or of a "sharing economy."
Once I collected and analyzed the data for Airbnb in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I decided to collect data for the entire city, and saw that the same story was repeated throughout the city. I then went about building a site that made it easy for anyone, even without a statistical background, to see the true story.
MA: Can you talk about how Airbnb's presence in a place like NYC directly correlates with the widening inequality gap and gentrification?
MC: Gentrification and the equality gap in New York City are complicated social and urban policy issues. Many of the issues stem from historic (and current) issues such as racism and discrimination.
While Airbnb might not be the root cause of inequality and gentrification, they are enabling behavior by property owners and investors which directly impacts the housing supply for regular New Yorkers (in a city with a very high percentage of renters). This includes not only renting rooms and apartments to tourists that have historically been rented to residents, but also includes buying and renovating real estate just for the purpose of renting to tourists.
Some of the intersections of Airbnb with gentrification are profound. Desirable properties close to Manhattan in under-priced neighborhoods are attractive to both tourists and gentrifiers. I noticed the large number of listings in gentrifying neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Bushwick.
There is also a high correlation with racial gentrification. When I examined the racial identity of Airbnb hosts in historically segregated neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, many of the host photos did not match the racial demographic of their neighborhood.
Within a couple of days of the public release of the Inside Airbnb data, IQuantNY, an independent blog run by quantitive analyst Ben Wellington, posted an analysis examining Airbnb use in neighborhoods, including calculating the correlation to different demographic characteristics such as median income. While I would have examined different factors such as rent and property price increases, or displacement, the fact that anyone can now do this type of analysis is powerful and justifies my decision to not only build the Inside Airbnb website, but to make the data public.
MA: What are some ways that citizens can help strengthen the enforcement of housing laws and regulations in New York City?
MC: The issue of short-term rentals in New York City is important because it is one where policy, laws and regulations can and do apply. Citizens of the city that are breaking the laws and regulations can start by following them. At least in New York City, there is widespread debate in the community and by our democratically elected officials about issues such as short-term rentals. The laws and regulations which protect residential housing and our community were introduced relatively recently and their relevancy should be respected.
New York has a long history of housing advocacy; most neighborhoods have community organizations that work on housing issues that a citizen can join or support. In my neighborhood there are groups such as Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, Neighborhood Housing Services, the Crown Heights Tenants Association, and many more.
Other ways a citizen can strengthen enforcement and regulations is by participating in community bodies such as block and tenant's associations, community boards or to contact their elected officials with their views about short-term rentals. Finally, it's vitally important to support the upcoming renewal of New York City rent regulations (currently controlled by the state) which protect millions of New Yorkers.