Over the last few years, Airbnb’s original vision of community-based tourism has buckled and distorted under its own success. But now a European startup is changing the stakes by bringing cities back into the conversation.
If there’s one thing most agree on, it’s that Airbnb started out with noble goals. It was hard to resist its invitation to “live like a local” in such a wide range of places, and the site promised a glammed-up version of the host-traveller relationship enjoyed by couchsurfers. On top of this, residents of cities like Barcelona were keen for the opportunity to make a quick buck in the wake of the economic recession. But as the platform expanded in authority and reach, so did its users. Rather than just renting out spare rooms in one’s family home, the site enabled users to acquire multiple properties – none of which they lived in themselves – and rent them out all year to tourists willing to pay far more than a local, long-term tenant.
It’s hard to measure the exact impact of Airbnb but in some places, the company is widely accused of speeding up gentrification and promoting unsustainable levels of tourism. It’s not as if Airbnb is unaware of its critics, but as an early poster child for Silicon Valley unicorn startups, it wasn’t about to cut down on its more commercial actors (who made up a large portion of its “super users”). Certain loopholes – such as refusing to share Airbnb data with their respective local councils – make it difficult to keep tabs on host behaviour. This lack of regulation has earned it the reputation of a “sharing economy” gone wrong; one that exploits the resources of the communities it originally promised to help. More than an affordable, easy alternative to hotels and hostels, Airbnb is now a tool for landlords to eat up local property markets while guaranteeing short term customers willing to pay a premium rent all year round.
Enter Sito Veracruz: an urban planner from Amsterdam who wanted to bring control back to the locals. Because Amsterdam is a particularly popular location on Airbnb, Veracruz had seen its influence firsthand. “Living room here is scarce,” he told Die Zeit in 2016. “Students and residents with average income can hardly find a room, let alone affordable apartments. 41% of the entire apartments listed on Airbnb are rented out for more than 150 days in the year, even though the legal maximum is 60 days per year. And although Airbnb now wants to delete listings which overstep the limit, their restrictions aren’t effective.”
Veracruz doesn’t dislike Airbnb, per se. He simply thinks it could be done better – and more fairly, which is why he and his co-founders named their alternative platform, Fairbnb. Citing Airbnb’s exponential growth model as unsustainable, he asserts: “We don’t want to be a profitable start up. We want to work as a cooperative.” In practice, that means paying local taxes and redirecting 50% of profits to the city council for social impact schemes. Restricting each host to one listing (which can each be rented out for up to 60 days per year) and using more data to enforce those restrictions will help fulfil Airbnb’s original promise; one that benefits residents, not landlords.
The project founders have had to grapple with numerous factors, such as data protection laws, increased responsibility from the state, and financing. Buoyed by help from supporters and local authorities and two successful crowdfunding schemes earlier this year, the platform has piloted in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Valencia, Barcelona, Bologna and Venice – locations that have become particularly stressed by the tourism to which Airbnb’s relentless popularity has contributed (the population in the historic city of Venice, for example, has more than halved since 1980).
Fairbnb co-founder Damiano Avellino explained why the economic approach underpinning Airbnb is so problematic: “It’s an extractive economy – often untaxed, with little going back to the community.” In Fairbnb’s case, its founders want to work alongside the state (emphasising, however, that they want to avoid becoming part of any political agenda). Prices on Fairbnb are set to be comparable to Airbnb, but Fairbnb plan to inject half the site’s 15% commission back into local NGOs, not-for-profit schemes or community projects, which are chosen by each city’s respective property owners, travellers and locals. In doing so, they aim to restore the balance between residents and tourists that has become so skewed under Airbnb’s influence.
Veracruz thinks that Airbnb could in theory become sustainable were it to reign back within cities strained by a massive influx of tourists; his fellow co-founder, Emanuele Dal Carlo, says that in some Italian hotspots, “tourists have become like pollution. We must make tourists enjoyable again, not just for them but for the residents as well.”
However, it’s unlikely that Airbnb could achieve this without making radical changes to its growth model. On its website Fairbnb says it will operate under “co-ownership and co-governance.” It will rely on the surrounding communities to support and enjoy the local tourist industry, rather than pushing them out of the equation. Going by the fact that thousands of people have already registered with Fairbnb before the site’s official launch in 2020, it’s clearly a concept that already resonates with people – and hopefully will continue to as it expands.
Interested in being a potential Fairbnb guest or host, getting your community involved or bringing the concept to your city? Sign up here.