Is There An Ethical Problem with Using Airbnb?

Airbnb graphic - 'To Airbnb, or not to Airbnb?' Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically?

Airbnb has become part of the travel mainstream over the past decade, bringing quirky and chic apartments and homeshares to the masses. For many of us, it forms a key part of our travel planning process. But recently Airbnb has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Related readNew to Airbnb? Everything You Need to Know Before Booking

Residents of popular tourist destinations across Europe – including Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik, Rome, and Lisbon – are mobilising to protest against the increasing numbers. Airbnb stands accused of destroying local communities, fudging data, of allowing illegal rentals and racial discrimination.

As a consumer and as former host I love Airbnb and can’t imagine travelling without it, but recent events have made me think about how I use the site.

Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically in Europe? And if so, how? Here’s a quick rundown of the issues.
Airbnb graphic - Is Airbnb legal? A rundown of the issues around tax, regulation, compliance.

IS AIRBNB LEGAL?

There’s nothing illegal about the Airbnb platform itself, but the company does not enforce local lodging laws and regulations, insisting this is the host’s responsibility.

Possible problems with this include:

  • the host may not be complying with (intentionally or otherwise) regulations around fire and environmental safety, zoning and property use
  • the locality may be missing out on taxes
  • the host may be (intentionally or otherwise) violating housing contracts and/or insurance policies

Regulation is slowly catching up with the sharing economy reality and forcing Airbnb to comply, particularly in cities with clout.  Local authorities are starting to cap tourist numbers and restrict how hosts are using Airbnb, with a focus on commercial apartment listings rather than shared spaces and primary residences.

As a consumer, a further problem is the lack of transparency in the listings. As a guest, it’s impossible to know which listings are compliant, and therefore to gauge the impact of your stay.

Airbnb graphic - What are the ethical problems with Airbnb? A quick rundown of issues around regulation, gentrification, property speculation, and discrimination.

IS AIRBNB UNETHICAL?

The main ethical argument against Airbnb concerns its impact on local communities and housing markets. Airbnb is great for guests and hosts, less so for the rest of the community.

  • Lack of regulation combined with good returns encourages property speculation
    • Landlords can make more money on holiday lets than long term tenants
    • Investors buy up apartments, reducing the stock and pushing up prices
    • Exacerbates existing problems with scarcity of affordable housing
  • Harder to control tourist numbers if accommodation is outside regulation
  • An influx of inconsiderate guests brings problems with noise and littering
  • Neighbourhoods and businesses change with the ratio of residents-tourists

Airbnb’s marketing presents a cosy image of home-sharers bonding over authentic moments and connection, but its growth is fuelled by property investors and third party management businesses.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with commercially run apartments – if they are compliant, the guest is aware and the numbers properly managed, then we can all enjoy the benefits.

Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically?

Arguably the genie is out of the bottle. Airbnb has created a demand that won’t disappear by avoiding the platform.

What’s needed:

  • regulation to protect communities in over-touristed areas
  • better information from destinations on minimising impact
  • consumer demand for transparency and accountability from Airbnb and other companies
  • innovation is needed from the hospitality sector to win back customers who don’t feel that the traditional providers cater for them (the rise of flashpacker design hostels is one example)

As a consumer, I want more transparency. I want to know the impact of my choices. I want to know if I’m booking a business listing or a primary residence. If the money is staying locally or going to foreign investors.

In the meantime, here are a few suggestions to minimise your impact:

  • Avoid vacation rentals in over-touristed hotspots in favour of locally-owned B&Bs, hotels and hostels
  • Check with the local tourist board for a list of registered properties
  • Use Airbnb to book primary residences or private rooms only where possible
  • Be a considerate guest

In Mediterranean Europe, Airbnb is increasingly used as a booking engine by traditional pensions, traditional family-run guesthouses. It can be a great way to surface these pensions who otherwise might not have much of an internet presence, particularly outside cities.

AIRBNB AND DISCRIMINATION

One fundamental flaw of the default booking system in Airbnb – which requires approval from the host – is that it allows for discrimination. Studies have found POC and disabled users of the site are more likely to have a booking request rejected.

Airbnb’s most visible response has been to make hosts sign a Community Commitment, whilst it experiments with platform changes to reduce unconscious bias.

But is this enough? Airbnb seems reluctant to remove hosts accused of discrimination – what’s the point of an agreement if there is no recrimination for breaking it?

A list of alternative accommodation booking sites that aren't Airbnb

ALTERNATIVES TO AIRBNB

Looking for alternatives to Airbnb? Here’s a list of booking sites for apartments, rooms and homeshares, although bear in mind they might be subject to the same problems listed above.

“When mainstream companies don’t serve particular groups of consumers well enough, new enterprises very quickly muscle in on their territory.” – The Airbnb Bias Row . . . , The Guardian

 

Have I missed any? Let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

FURTHER READING

Inside Airbnb: Adding Data to the Debate

Airbnb, 2016 Highlights and 2017 Trends We’re Watching

Quartz, The Dirty Secret of Airbnb is That It’s Really, Really White

Guardian, Airbnb: From Homesharing Cool to Commercial Giant

Guardian, Airbnb Faces EU Clampdown for Not Paying ‘Fair Share’ of Taxes

El Pais, Spain: Vacation Rentals Offering More Beds Than Hotels for the First Time

What do you think? Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically, or will you be avoiding it on your next trip?

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Airbnb graphic - Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically? A rundown of the issues with ethics, regulation, discrimination, legality.

 

A look at some of the issues.
Is it possible to use Airbnb ethically in Europe? A look at some of the issues.
Don't Want to Use Airbnb? Here's a list of alternative accommodation booking sites
Don't Want to Use Airbnb? A list of alternative accommodation booking sites
A quick look at some of the ethical and legal issues, including tax, regulation, and discrimination.
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21 Comments

  1. September 2, 2017 / 9:28 pm

    Such an interesting article. As someone travelling long term with a camper I recognise we bring our own challenges to the community especially if we choose wild camping. For us it’s always about respect and contribution to the community, so being a responsible traveller is key. We must acknowledge tourism is a symbiotic relationship between the visitor and community. When one is out of balance then a problem manifests.

    • September 6, 2017 / 10:00 am

      That’s an excellent way of putting it.

  2. September 2, 2017 / 10:05 pm

    Thanks for this. I’ve been looking for alternatives to AirBNB for apartments in Paris. I use to like using it but now, not only are there ethical problems, they are making it so much more difficult and complicated to actually book anything that it becomes so annoying i just give up. Will check out the list you have given of alternative providers. Cheers.

    • September 6, 2017 / 11:07 am

      I’ve heard a few people say this. Do you mean the steps needed to sign up (like ID verification), or is there something Paris-specific?

  3. September 2, 2017 / 10:24 pm

    You definitely raise some great issues. I think it’s important to research if Airbnb is problematic in the area you’re travelling to. For example in Vancouver where I live there is a 0.1% vacancy rate, lots of foreign buyers and lots of desperate people. That isn’t necessarily caused by Airbnb but has certainly added pressure to the problem. It’s pushed rental rates up to silly prices and low income people are having to move out of the city (while perfectly usable apartments sit empty for half the year.)

    I do use Airbnb regularly in the Okanagan though which has tons of holiday rentals and many people’s second homes for the summer or ski season. Vacancy rates are fine and it isn’t a problem (except perhaps stealing some business away from the big hotels and smaller guest houses.)

    I know there are similar problems throughout Europe so research is key!

    • September 6, 2017 / 10:24 am

      I used to live in London so I feel you on the silly rental rates! It’s crazy and surely unsustainable what’s happening with some property markets. If only the people responsible for regulation weren’t also the ones benefitting from property prices going up.

  4. September 2, 2017 / 10:31 pm

    You bring up a lot of great points. While I think Air bnb has done a great job at disrupting the market and giving travelers a cheaper option, I do think that they need to really address some of these concerns. One in particular that really bothers me is the one where someone will buy an entire house or flat and just rent out each of the rooms to Air bnb guests. That isn’t the experience I like. Part of the charm of Air bnb for me is to meet my host, and stay in their home. I like having conversations with them and getting some advice on the best places to go. These hosts that have a key code on the door and never greet you on checkin combined with treating the entire flat like a hostel just rubs me the wrong way… Great insightful stuff. I hope air bnb works toward these big problems.

    • September 6, 2017 / 10:05 am

      That’s the appeal for me too, but some people are happy with the key code experience as they’re just looking for a nice apartment. Each to their own. At the moment you have to really dig into the listing information to figure out which type of experience it will be – additional filters would help a lot.

  5. September 2, 2017 / 10:34 pm

    Great post. I’m pretty anti-AirBnB in general, but I think it’s possible to be cautious and use it in a socially responsible way. I’ve just seen too many property managers in my home city (Washington, DC) rent out affordable housing units on AirBnB because they can make more renting them with a nightly rate than they ever could from monthly rent. So when I do use AirBnB, I always try to stay in a room in someone’s home rather than renting my own place — that way I can be more sure that I’m not staying in a permanent rental unit that could otherwise be rented by a local. I’m also intrigued by Trusted Housesitters as potentially a more sustainable alternative, although it hasn’t quite taken off in the US yet.

    • September 6, 2017 / 11:16 am

      I’d love to try house sitting, such a great option for long term travel. Is it the concept of house sitting in general that hasn’t taken off in the US, or that website in particular?

  6. September 3, 2017 / 4:14 am

    I love using AirBnb, but I am in the same boat as you re: taking a step back and rethinking that. I’m learning more and more about the negative effects it has on communities and individuals. This is a really hot topic in San Diego, CA right now (where I live). Currently it is totally unregulated and people are fighting to get some clarity on how short term vacation rentals (any STVR, not us Airbnb) can be used in neighborhoods. San Diego is in the midst of a decades long housing crisis, there isn’t enough affordable housing to offer those that live and work here, and while short term vacation rentals can’t be solely blamed for the issue, it certainly doesn’t help. Many STVR can be traced back to individuals or corporations that do not even reside in the state of California. As it is, technically San Diego zoning doesn’t actually have language that allows STVR so they aren’t technically legal here, but no one is enforcing that. Sadly areas that used to be primarily residential , like Mission Beach, are now dominated by STVR and the costs are too high for residence to live there. There are even cases of renters being evicted and their units being converted to STVR. The other issue is that for whatever reason when people are on vacation in San Diego they like to have raging parties until the early hours in the morning. There is a house that’s a STVR only a few houses down from our apartment and I’d say about 50% of the guests that stay there have no respect that they are in a residential neighborhood and are loud/party until late at night. It’s such a shame. It’s such a complicated issue, areas are zoned for specific purposes such as residential and commercial which impacts things like parking, schools, sewage, infrastructure etc. A single family home with 2-3 bedrooms was never intended to hold 15-20 people, but that’s what is happening now. Sorry for the long comment, but it’s such an important topic that I keep learning more about. Great post!

    • September 6, 2017 / 11:15 am

      You would think that areas with zoning already in place would be quicker to implement changes. That boggles my mind really.

      I was very lucky when I lived in London – I had Airbnbers in the flat above me for a while and the guests were generally less noisy than the neighbour who actually lived there!

  7. September 3, 2017 / 11:04 am

    This was a really interesting article! I haven’t used Airbnb much myself, although I do have a room in a family house booked for the next couple of weeks. I think that kind of Airbnb is fine (I’m also staying in a small town that doesn’t see many tourists and will be using the time and good wifi to get work done!) but I”m not sure about using them in Barcelona etc. I completely understand the issues surrounding it and it’s not sustainable at all to have such a negative impact. It’s the same with using uber and grab car etc. It’s so difficult to know what to do!

    • September 6, 2017 / 11:05 am

      I’m not a big taxi user in general, but when I was in Athens I used an app called Taxibeat. It was great because the app offered the same benefits to the passenger, but it was a local company and used by the professional taxi drivers in the city at metered rates (taxis are pretty cheap in Athens anyway). I was sad to see it was acquired earlier this year by Mytaxi ( owned by Germany’s Daimler-Benz), I hope it still operates in the same way.

  8. Nina Danielle
    September 3, 2017 / 12:18 pm

    Ok so here’s my thing with this issue… is it ethical to tell people that they shouldn’t do anything to get ahead financially?? People in upper classes have been flipping homes and driving up property prices for YEARS. They make millions doing this, and we accept it. When the single woman who has a spare bedroom wants to make a few hundred dollars extra per month, we flip. The gap between socioeconomic groups is growing, and people are looking for ways to bridge it. Many people cannot afford property or their homes if they don’t do things like Airbnb – THAT’S shady ethics. We definitely need some different regulations… but it’s not unethical to try and get ahead!

    • September 6, 2017 / 10:45 am

      Of course not. But I want Airbnb to make it easier for me to distinguish between the single woman making extra cash from spare space, and someone who is making megabucks bucks off multiple apartments but hasn’t registered as a business.

      In an ideal world, the local authorities would have appropriate regulation in place that makes it easy for the single woman to make extra cash but also protects the community from drastic change in use and property speculation. I realise this is wishful thinking though!

  9. September 5, 2017 / 8:49 pm

    That was great. As someone who’s lived exclusively on Airbnbs and short term furnished rentals for the last few years, and also someone who’s owned a real estate company in a previous chapter of my life, I think about the “debate” a lot from different perspectives. My hometown of Asheville NC just banned Airbnb rentals for the entire property (anything less than 30 days) but continues to allow hosts to rent rooms in their homes for short term stays. With any technology, laws are slower to catch up. I can understand that homeowners want peace and quiet in their neighborhoods and to know who’s living next door to them. And I can also understand how a homeowner wouldn’t want a city telling them what they can and cannot do with their property. And as a traveler who lives on Airbnbs, I LOVE living in neighborhoods versus tourist or city areas because I’m often renting for 1-3 months at a time. There are a lot of layers to it. Great article though. I think you look at the debate and present multiple sides to the ethics aspect in an intelligent and logical way.

    • September 6, 2017 / 11:38 am

      Thanks Paul. Interesting point you make about homeowners not wanting to be told what to do with their property. Is there much backlash against the new regulations in Asheville then?

  10. September 6, 2017 / 5:22 pm

    Great article, and I especially love that you included alternatives!
    I used to use Air BnB quite a bit when it was new. It was much lesser known then and more of a traveller go-to, something that the masses didn’t really feel comfortable using. It seems that with the rise of low-cost travel and more people on the road, it just got way too big, way too fast with no foresight to regulations to protect the locals.
    I’ve been living in Spain (Madrid & Canary Islands) for the last 6 years and it’s mindblowing how much rent has increased and how difficult it is to find housing in the city centers. Here in Las Palmas, many landlords are raising rent to the maximum allowed by law annually, hoping to force out long term tenants to switch over to short term vacation rentals.
    Anyhow, thanks for read and spreading the word! 🙂

  11. DP
    September 6, 2017 / 7:51 pm

    A few points that everyone seems to miss about Airbnb:

    1) The reason urban housing has gone up (and locals can’t afford it) has very little to do with Airbnb. It contributes but is probably the fourth biggest factor. Number one is access to cheap credit. We live in an unprecedented time where anyone can buy a home on a 30 year mortgage with near zero rates. That has substantially increased demand for both primary and investment property for much longer than Airbnb has existed. Second, there has been a great urban migration all around the world. That’s where jobs are. Third, because of low interest rates again, economic development has been overwhelmingly in city centers. It’s a desirable place to live for the wealthy. Fourth, millions of wealthy buyers from China and Russia are buying up property to park their money in safe places. They love property investment, even at inflated prices. And fifth, because of vastly expanding tourist markets (which again contributes to city center development). Airbnb contributes but this has been accelerating for years.

    2) If you’re still upset about landlords choosing how to rent their properties, that’s absurd. These people are running businesses. They don’t do it for charity. They took a huge risk to buy the property and run it. They can do with it whatever they see fit. Over-regulate the market and there’s no incentive for new developments that help solve the supply and price issues.

    3) If you really want to fix this, you can use Economics 101. Instead of regulating the market by restricting supply, you’re only making it more profitable and incentivizing people to rent their unit. The best way to solve the problem is to let people rent their unit or for developers to build entirely new housing units. Increased supply drives prices way down and makes short term rentals a less enticing market. Then the landlords re-convert it to long-term housing. So all your regulatory fixes actually exasperates the problem.

    4) I don’t know why you’d possibly care whether the home is hosted by a local or investor. Who do you think builds the city that makes it desirable? The shopping centers, skyscrapers, restaurants, and other fun things? Investors. Making a city a great investment is a great way to boost the quality of a city.

    5) Nobody has a right to live in the city center of any city. That’s ridiculous.

    The problem I have is that people don’t bother to understand this issue. And then they enact horrific solutions (like restricting supply) and ignoring the real problems (unsustainable credit expansion) that makes the problem much worse. I have an ethical problem with that.

  12. September 10, 2017 / 10:06 pm

    Very interesting – I still haven’t stayed in an Airbnb but in the apartment block that I live in, there are lots of apartments sub-let on there and it’s so much extra work for our concierge that he never signed up for. We don’t know most of our neighbours now as the owners have chosen to rent out on Airbnb rather than to live there or to rent out to someone long-term – it’s sad!

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