Local Peace Economy

Here's How Airbnb Is ‘Disrupting’ the Wrong Economy

Airbnb’s slimy practices only enable the worst of the housing market in Boston and other cities.

Photo Credit: 360b / Shutterstock.com

There was a time, not that long ago, when the “disrupters” sold us the idea of the “sharing economy.” Anyone could make extra money, they said, by using the tech gods’ apps to share their homes, couches, and cars. The problem is that a true “sharing” economy already happens in real-world communities with real-world relationships that don’t rely on a corporate overlord to coordinate the sharing, mine you for data, or otherwise try to make you act like an employee without giving you the benefits of being one—or consumer protections for using their service.

But people bought the new definition in the true capitalist sense, and now governments and society are grappling with the repercussions.

Take, for example, Airbnb. The website and app were once a saving grace for people across the country driven to seek extra cash through renting out bedrooms or couches for short-term stays because of crushing student loan debt, lack of good jobs, and a robust and exploitative “gig” economy. The “sharing” economy seemed to fit nicely with the “gig” economy—until recently, when it’s dawning on more and more people that Airbnb is actually driving up rents and dwindling housing stock while contributing to plagues of homelessness in popular cities.

SPONSORED

Boston, for example, estimates that it has lost 2,000 units in a city with growing housing needs and a growing homeless population.

While it’s arguable that skyrocketing housing cost isn’t exclusively Airbnb’s fault, it’s hard to deny that Airbnb (and the corporate entities it enables to take advantage of local housing markets) is stooping to slimy levels to maintain its hold in cities. Here are just a few examples of how Airbnb has ‘disrupted’ in Boston.

Airbnb Host ‘Anthony’ Is Actually an Avatar for a Rental Company in Another City

Commercial real estate rental and management companies, like Domio in New York City, rented dozens of properties in Boston with a handsome white male host supposedly named Anthony—without being forthcoming about the fact that they are a company, not the guy in (what turns out to be a stock) photo. They even gave him a phony bio that declared he is an “Entrepreneur by day, international traveler in my spare time… Living the busy startup life.”

Airbnb Smears Populist Politician

Boston started looking at how to regulate the home sharing service in 2016, as it saw investors buying up real estate and turning entire buildings into de facto hotels.

Adam Gaffin, a reporter who runs Boston’s UniversalHub.com website, reported:

“In East Boston, Charlestown and the North End, City Councilor Sal LaMattina said, investors are buying up units right and left and turning them into permanent ‘virtual hotel rooms,’ locking out poor and middle-class residents.

“… there are now 270 units in his district listed on Airbnb, charging between $150 and $270 a night. ‘How can working families afford that?’ he asked, adding that the transient nature of Airbnb rental units helps breakdown the connections between neighbors that make neighborhoods work.

“And the online services has an unfair advantage over local hotels, he said. ‘You don't have to get an inspection, not from ISD, not from the Fire Department, because there are no regulations in place.’”

Then, in March of this year, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and City Councilors Michelle Wu and Lydia Edwards had proposals that would restrict the length of time a rental could be used for short-term rentals, or even bar investors from them entirely.

Airbnb responded with an email to Boston-based “friends” that smeared Wu, accusing her of being in bed with “big hotel interests.”

The only problems with Airbnb’s claims is that popular city councilor Wu’s own campaign finance records show no big hotel support.

Then, Airbnb upped the ante by accusing the entire city council of being against the little guy. Then they started calling their Boston users—on a weekend—to let them know Boston Airbnb proposals were too restrictive, and would they record a message saying so?

But the mayor’s latest proposal, which “bans short-term rentals from non-owner occupied buildings, eliminating investor units and absentee Airbnb landlords” seems to be gaining support, and could be voted on in June.

In addition, according to Gaffin, the proposal would permit anyone to rent out a bedroom in their primary residence for a $25 annual licensing fee, and makes other allowances for owner-occupied and residential property—in other words, despite Airbnb’s assertion, the proposal totally looks out for the “little guy.”

While this might be a good first step to regulating an out-of-control, capitalist-driven economy, it might be helpful if Airbnb users considered the ramifications of using the giant, and perhaps consider other options, including good, old-fashioned hostels and hotels.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Valerie Vande Panne is an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.