Renting in the City

A little over a year ago now, I was walking around the Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon. It was my first time in Portugal, and I was overwhelmed with how gorgeous everything was. I admired the trams, sweet pastels against azulejo-tiled buildings, and the narrow medieval streets winding up and down hills with views of the Tagus River meeting the sea. I romanticized everything, like travelers often do, imagining that one day, maybe, I could move here. Lisbon’s purported beauty was one of the main reasons we had decided to go at all, drawn in by the idea of a city not yet crowded with tourists, at least a small distance from the usual bucket list destinations like Paris and Rome. My first impression was of a city that was beautiful yet approachable, with a wealth of culture and history but still very much a people’s city. Turns out, I was mistaken, but Lisbon itself wasn’t to blame. During my walk that day in the Alfama, still soaking everything in, I came across a phrase spray painted on a wall: 

“Fuck AirBNB
We want to live here”

Despite how comfortable I had felt in Lisbon, local life was being affected directly by the thing I was benefitting from. The message was for people exactly like me. We had booked an apartment on AirBNB for the trip, without having encountered critiques of the service before. Seeing that message, nestled among other graffiti, I thought again about the apartment we had rented. When we had checked in a few days earlier, it was clear that it was not the only apartment our host owned. I hadn’t encountered such a commercial AirBNB before, as my only other AirBNB experience had been staying in the other side of a young couple’s duplex in New Orleans. And, despite being an urban studies student, I hadn’t come across the many articles on the perils of AirBNB that I would read soon after.

So, I was staying in one of several investment properties in a desirable neighborhood in Lisbon. A place where, because of those kinds of investment properties, local people were no longer able to live. I found myself indisputably part of the problem. Is it the fault of people like me that apartments have gotten too expensive, that long-term rentals are disappearing from the market to instead be listed on AirBNB, rented week by week year-round? I was also staying in an AirBNB because it was a third, if not a quarter, of the cost of a hotel. It was a sweet apartment, convenient, and for a few days I got to pretend I really was living in this incredible new place.

I am certainly on the privileged side of the AirBNB debate, the one who gets to stay in a nice apartment while others confront limited housing options. I haven’t personally been priced out of a place I used to live. But, even if I stopped staying in AirBNBs altogether (I do avoid them, due to my own ethical dilemma), there are plenty more people like me, which is why AirBNB is so successful to begin with. 

A tram in the Alfama

It’s my responsibility to understand the implications of my choice to stay, or not stay, in an AirBNB property, but as an individual I am not able to change the impact the company has had, as much as I try to improve my own actions. What does have the capacity to protect communities and housing markets from AirBNB is strong local policy committed to prioritizing affordable housing and livable neighborhoods. 

New Orleans, which is now at the forefront of the struggle with regulating AirBNB, has introduced several policies in the last couple of years with the aim of protecting the hospitality industry that is so central to the city’s economy while promoting and preserving affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying city.

Most recently, New Orleans City Council member Kristen Gisleson Palmer introduced a ban on ‘entire home’ short-term rentals, allowing hosts to rent extra space as long as they are also on the property. This prevents homes from serving exclusively as short-term rentals, bringing different neighbors to a neighborhood every week, and removing housing from a market that desperately needs it. New Orleans ranked in the top ten cities at risk of a housing crisis last year, and while AirBNB is not the sole cause of the city’s housing troubles, stronger regulations are certainly part of the solution.

New York City faces similar issues, with an already deeply strained housing market and a bustling tourist industry. New York has also been found to have a large quantity of vacant apartments that serve as investment properties, like the one I stayed at in Lisbon. Stronger regulation of short-term rentals and vacant apartments, for instance taxing those investment properties as described by Adele Peters in an article for Fast Company, is part of a toolkit cities need to adopt in order to maintain, or perhaps regain, affordability.

That being said, the profound importance of public policy should not excuse individuals from their responsibility to promote inclusivity in their cities and towns. Yes, it’s unlikely that as an individual I can make much of a dent in AirBNB’s actions as a company or the massive scale on which they operate. However, I can vote. I can advocate for better housing policy. I can act in solidarity with those struggling to remain in their homes or find a home at all. Piece by piece, and lot by lot, we can all contribute to creating more equitable and inclusive cities. We have a responsibility to push our cities to be better, not as investments but as homes and communities. 

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