Over the years I’ve come to see Airbnb as a Bad Thing. Besides a couple of poor experiences at the hands of Airbnb “hosts” (I prefer to call them vultures), it is clear that between Airbnb and low-cost airlines our cities have been turned into tawdry tourist theme parks instead of vibrant spaces for the people who actually live, work and raise families there. I’ve been shocked by the Disneyfication of some of the city centres I visited lately. Quebec city was like a film set, with burly North Americans wandering around marvelling at the brickwork and windy streets, as if getting a behind-the-scenes look at a set from Game of Thrones. I met very few non-tourists over the course of a week spent there. Porto looked like it was in the throes of a zombie apocalypse: the riverside was crammed with hordes of red-faced, sweaty Britons mobbing mindlessly around anywhere that looked like it served alcohol. The few natives I saw there looked swamped and under siege. And Dublin . . . I think they should change its name to the Irish version of “trying-to-find-anything-non-touristy-in-the-city-centre-is-harder-than-advanced-Where’s-Wally”. (Its current name in Irish – Baile Átha Clíath – means “town-of-the-crossing-place-of-the-hurdles”).
Airbnb has significantly contributed to the hollowing-out of the city centres of major and minor world cities. If you want to live in the centre of Madrid, Dublin, London, New York or Granada, Salzburg or Cork you’ll have to compete with hundreds of thousands of global tourists who are prepared to pay multiples per night of what you can afford to pay. For landlords it’s a no-brainer – if all they’re interested in is the bottom line. And landlords are landlords, after all.
When Airbnb started out over a decade ago there was something almost noble to it. You’ve got a spare room? Why not make a bit of extra cash by renting it out to travellers? You’ll be their host, take care of them, show them around the city maybe, share a meal, an evening drink. It’ll be like when your boyfriend’s second cousin comes to crash, only you’ll make a bit of money out of it. The original model allowed those on meagre budgets to stay in amazing locations they could never otherwise afford – at the same time as getting the low-down from a clued-in local. Then, it all went pear-shaped. Somewhere along the line it stopped being a cottage industry. Landlords got involved: they started renting out entire apartments and houses. The concept that you took a room in a normal household died out. Property management firms and vulture funds got involved. It became a holiday rental business. A very lucrative holiday rental business. Very soon, any property for sale in our city centres was snapped up by the Airbnb industry. Renting of city centre apartments to long-term tenants who wanted to live and work in the city centre became a thing of the past. Our city centres became Airbnb-ified.
But now, this coronavirus thing is putting an end to that. No one is travelling. Perhaps no one will travel for a very long time. Six months. A year. Maybe the type of low-budget travel we’ve become so used to over the past 20 years is over. Whatever the case, Airbnb is taking and will continue to take a hit. And the good news for our city centres is that the vultures are turning back to ordinary tenants to make a buck. Already, a couple of weeks into the Irish coronavirus crisis, the closing of the tourist tap has forced Airbnb hosts to move away from travellers and return to renting to regular folks. According to this Irish Independent article there is already a 64% rise in the availability of rental properties in Dublin. Let’s see how this one plays out. Perhaps some good will come of this awful pandemic.