Rent prices are skyrocketing. There’s an estimated shortage of 7 million affordable housing units for low-income renters. Thousands of people in areas with scarce renter protections have been left vulnerable to sudden evictions. And inflation is making everything even more expensive.
America is facing a severe housing affordability crisis. And Airbnb is not helping.
In May, Curbed reported that there were now several thousand less homes available for rent in Manhattan, Brooklyn and northwest Queens than there were entire-home rentals on Airbnb available in New York City. The number of places available for a long-term rental (a mere 7,669) was provided by real estate agency Douglas Elliman.
Thanks to Airbnb’s notorious secrecy—and occasional obstruction—around its listings, the number of available, short-term rentals on Airbnb in the same period (20,397) had to be scraped from the platform by Inside Airbnb, a data-driven project that has been measuring the company’s impact on residential communities since 2013.
You might be familiar with the design of Inside Airbnb’s maps, myriad tiny red dots scattered around a white-and-green chart of various American and global cities. That’s because the group’s work has been going viral the past few months, as more and more people look into Airbnb’s role in the housing crisis.
“All the Airbnbs in New Orleans, a city with a housing shortage,” a popular post showcasing a screenshot of a map riddled with red dots reads. “Huh, wonder where all the housing went?” Using the same map, another user comments: “The block I grew up on in New Orleans is literally half Airbnbs. A plantation economy in twenty-thousand dots.”
An Irish person used an Inside Airbnb screenshot that shows over 15,000 short-term rentals all over the country to clap back against a report stating that there are only 851 homes available for rent in the entirety of Ireland. “I’m not saying Airbnb is causing the housing crisis, but it’s not helping!” he commented.
These concerns aren’t just online complaints. Ever since it was founded in 2008 as a platform that would supposedly make it easier for people to rent out a spare room for short periods of time, Airbnb has painted itself as a bastion of the so-called “sharing economy,” highlighting how it helps regular people make a little extra cash.
Yet, over the past fourteen years, the platform has increasingly been accused of changing the nature of certain cities—from New York and San Francisco to Barcelona and Venice—to their core, while causing rent prices to skyrocket. The fact that it’s more profitable to rent out whole houses or apartments to tourists for short periods of time rather than rent the same properties for longer periods to people who actually live in these cities has meant that housing has been taken off the residential market, driving real estate values up, and contributing to the expulsion of working-class people from city centers.
In an email to the Daily Dot, Airbnb vehemently denied the claims Inside Airbnb made, claiming it was unduly influenced in its projects.
“Inside Airbnb has long enjoyed a cozy relationship with the hotel industry and a loose relationship with the facts as the reality is most hosts share just one listing,” Airbnb spokesperson Mattie Zazueta said. “Airbnb has shared data about our community with thousands of governments around the world and supported balanced rules and regulations, including by offering partners from the United Kingdom to Kauai access to our City Portal which provides tools and insights into home-sharing in their communities.”
In response to Airbnb, Murray Cox, the founder of Inside Airbnb said that “I have sold data to hospitality researchers, as I sell data to academics and cities, to help support the project. I’ve disclosed this to journalists who have asked. It’s offensive and sad that Airbnb would resort to such lies and tactics.”
Airbnb’s impact became even more evident at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when Airbnb started allowing people to cancel their short-term rentals, leaving many landlords unhappy. In the following weeks, cities like Dublin, Edinburgh, and London started witnessing a 45% to 64% increase in new housing listings available for long-term rental.
As a more complicated narrative around the sharing economy emerged, projects like Inside Airbnb have been central in helping journalists, politicians, local authorities and regular people get a clearer picture of the company’s presence in their cities.
“When I first started, I think most people weren’t aware that they were issues with Airbnb. Most journalists, if they were reporting it, were talking about the issues that the hotel industry raised around the company, like the fact that they weren’t paying their taxes or they were competing unfairly with hotels,” Cox, the data and photojournalist who first founded Inside Airbnb in 2014, said to the Daily Dot. “I think people didn’t really know how, in the majority of cities, Airbnb was being used by people to rent out multiple entire homes.”
His website’s purpose was to add data to that debate. For years, Cox had been documenting the gentrification of Brooklyn, where he was living, through photography. After hearing that a journalist was working on a data-driven investigation on Airbnb listings in San Francisco, he started scraping the data that the company refused to provide to show how his neighborhood was being transformed, too. In March 2015, he published the first of many Inside Airbnb maps, sorting the scraped listings data by types of accommodation, price, number of reviews, and, crucially, number of hosts with more than one listing to their name. The data was easily readable and available for anyone to browse and use.
“I never imagined what would happen next”, Cox says. “I honestly hadn’t even made plans to regularly collect the data. I thought Airbnb would try to sue me or shut the project down somehow—but they didn’t. They would rather use their massive PR machinery to try and discredit the project and the work of any researcher who writes about them negatively.”
Over the past years, for instance, University of Manchester researcher Luke Yates showed that Airbnb had been cultivating so-called “grassroots lobbying initiatives,” essentially providing resources to curated groups of individuals and businesses renting out spaces on Airbnb. In turn, these apparently bottom-up groups would lobby local and national governments for deregulation or to block sanctions against the platform. Airbnb is also known to have heavily lobbied the European Union to soften regulations that the cities of Berlin, Paris, Barcelona and Brussels had set up to counter the company’s effect on their urban landscape.
Today, Inside Airbnb provides data for more than a hundred different cities, and it’s working on a way to collect data for entire countries. As media attention started pouring in, so did the requests from activists and local authorities around the world. They, too, were hungry for the data they didn’t know how to obtain otherwise.
“I think data is crucial, because without data, you’re relying on anecdotes, or on the stories pushed by an enormous multinational corporation,” Cox said. “ Without data, people would just think Airbnb is a cool way to travel, and that it’s helping economies, helping regular people pay their rent and mortgage. Without the data, you would think that that story was true. But with the data, you can see that in many cities Airbnb is largely made up by the people managing massive property portfolios.”
A December 2020 report Cox and colleague Kenneth Haar worked on exposed “how Airbnb has driven up rents, caused damage to urban communities, and wrecked affordable social housing programs.”
Among other things, the report showed that, even after controlling for gentrification, Airbnb’s presence in Barcelona led to a 7% increase in rents and a 19% increase in property prices. In Paris—a city with a notorious housing problem—15,000 to 25,000 apartments were taken off the residential market because of Airbnb. In Prague, it was 15,000.
That’s because few regular people are actually using the platform to rent out a spare room once in a while. In Amsterdam, the report states, 87% of Airbnb revenue is estimated to come from full-time short-term rentals and large property portfolios. In Barcelona, 75% of listings were reportedly commercial-use properties. In Prague, more than half of apartments were managed by hosts with more than one apartment listing to their name.
“I really wish there wasn’t a need for a project like mine,” the data activist told the Daily Dot. “In the future, I would hope that Airbnb would provide real data and that countries would start thinking about what data platforms should be providing so that they can measure the impact on society. I think this is crucial, especially when it comes to the central point, which is housing availability: Everyone doesn’t need a place to vacation, but everyone needs a place to live.”
In terms of recommended regulations for policymakers, Cox wrote that three components have proven key: forcing platforms to disclose data, holding platforms accountable, and enforcing a mandatory registration system to track hosts.
The data journalist was directly involved in pushing for a mandatory registration system for New York City that was passed by the city council in December 2021. The system would make it easier to detect tens of thousands of listings that are illegal under state law.
“As an activist fighting the impact of short-term rentals on residential communities and affordable housing around the world, I applaud the New York City Council for passing this important law that returns valuable housing back to the market and allows New York City to join the likes of Paris, Barcelona and Amsterdam with world-class legislation that affirms a commitment to the right to housing”, Cox said at the time.
But as for a number of other cities, as Inside Airbnb shows, there’s still a long way to go.
This post has been updated with comment from Airbnb.