It's open season on Airbnb.com. Scarcely a week goes by that you do not read attacks in the travel press claiming that the popular apartment-sharing service is causing shortages of housing for permanent residents of cities. You read of various scoundrels operating illegal hotels of 50 and more units that they rent through Airbnb.com. You react to emotional portrayals of drunken tourists being released into the corridors of quiet apartment houses--all because of Airbnb.com
It's time to bring a bit of balance into the appraisal of what Airbnb.com has become and what it has brought about in the world of accommodations. I accept that task. And I point out at the beginning that I have not a penny of financial interest in Airbnb, no connection with it, not even a casual acquaintance with any of its personnel.
We start with the fact that a healthy portion of Airbnb's rentals are of spare rooms or spare beds in apartments or homes whose owners remain in residence throughout the rental. That type of occupancy does not remove a single housing unit from the housing stock of a particular city; it does not reduce the apartments available to permanent residents. It simply adds to the accommodations available to tourists, saving them from the high cost of hotels and often permitting them to stay in a city where they might otherwise be unable to find a single bed. And that kind of rental by Airbnb.com is entirely legal under the most sweeping of statutes regulating the activities of Airbnb.com. What percentage of its rentals are of spare rooms in an owner-occupied unit? Twenty-five percent? Forty percent? Whatever, it's obviously a healthy part of the business done by Airbnb.
How about the rental of an entire apartment or home whose owner vacates the property during the period of a tourist's stay? A good part of that kind of occupancy is currently being offered by apartment or home owners when they themselves go on vacation. In publications ranging from USA Today to travel blogs, it appears that a growing percentage of Americans who leave the city for several weeks when they go on vacation, earn income from their empty apartment or home by renting it to tourists through Airbnb.com. If they didn't do so, the apartment or home would simply remain vacant. And by renting it to transient visitors, the apartment or home owner does not remove a single unit from a city's housing stock.
What percentage of Airbnb's business is being done by vacationing apartment or home owners? One can only guess, but it must be a sizable amount. The same with respect to young people who periodically, throughout the year, earn some extra income from their apartment by moving out to stay with a friend while a transient visitor or tourist occupies their home. I have myself heard of several young people who do exactly that, and by doing so they do not remove a single housing unit from the city's available stock for permanent residents.
I could go on with further examples, but simply point out that the large number of Americans who rent their homes to tourists on occasion, sporadically, several isolated times per year, are not causing the dire consequences of which the enemies of Airbnb.com are writing. Many of those complainers are egged on by the hotel industry, and are not motivated by genuine concern about the availability of housing for permanent residents. And the claims that Airbnb is removing "tens of thousands" of housing units from the available stock, are surely overblown.
If these complainers were genuinely concerned with the availability of permanent housing, and not simply affected by the interests of hotels, they would confine their attacks to the people who rent out apartments to tourists every day of the year, continuously. And all of us would endorse their views.
But I would simply point out that such abuse of rental rights (namely, the operation of illegal hotels) is obviously of fairly modest size, and does not deserve the heated condemnation of Airbnb. Let the regulators go after the illegal hotels, but leave alone the people renting out their homes or apartments on occasion when they go on vacation or need extra cash.