On The City As Museum

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Essays

I’m no urban planning expert, but I’m curious!

Short-term rental versus long-term rental seems like a core tension driving the AirBnB question in cities around the world.

For the uninitiated, AirBnB has been conducting an international advocacy campaign to convince municipal policymakers that short-term rentals on their platform don’t actually hurt cities, but instead create incremental income, which is increasingly important in a post-industrial economy. I am an extremely happy AirBnB user. I have both hosted and stayed, preferring AirBnB as a guest because of the uniqueness of the inventory, and enjoying it as a host because of the income it provides. But I admit that I have wondered: what would happen to a world where everybody – owner or renter – AirBnB’ed all the time? While AirBnB offers sublets, I assume short term rentals make up the vast majority of their transactions.* So what would happen if short-term rentals began to dominate the city-living landscape?

It seems as though the pessimistic case for a short-term rental dominated city-living-landscape simply raises housing prices. After all, the conventional wisdom is that renting a space by the day is better business than renting it out by the month. So, presumably, the price per day of any given unit will go up, until it hits a ceiling of “no longer competitive with hotels”. In this case, then, the hotels slowly empty out, and the ‘permanent residential area’ in cities turns into hotels, and the city starts to look like a museum – great to visit, but not much more (except for a very, very select few). And if only owners can rent out their properties, then presumably the ‘very, very select few’ are those owners, and inequality and stratification increases, in the name of some purported “efficiency”. This is, at least, the argument that the detractors and naysayers put forth. And its a compelling one.

But the reality is more nuanced for a few reasons. First, while AirBnB doesn’t necessarily endorse this, many** AirBnB hosts aren’t owners, but are renters themselves, and so they are ‘subleasing’ their properties. And under these circumstances, the economics get more complicated. If every renter can also ‘subrent’ property, then while the price/unit does go up, the revenue/renter also goes up for everybody. And presumably that doesn’t stratify and exclude nearly as much, right? 

Let’s take that thought to an extreme: I have heard of more and more people who have an ‘anchor’ sublet somewhere, but who spend a month in one city, a month in another, and another – and so on and so forth – subletting their anchor to different people for a month, or a week, or a day at a time. In a world where telecommuting, remote working, and ‘working from home’ are more common, does this not mean that while every city becomes a museum, every other city-dweller has a free museum pass? And if I don’t have the money to pay for flights to other cities, perhaps I downsize the apartment in the visiting city, or I visit a less expensive city, and use the excess revenue for travel? Sounds like a pretty fascinating life to me.

This type of reality, while exhausting for some, or biased towards the young, could be a way for people in cities all over to experience the world. But, if I’m understanding the math properly, it only seems possible if AirBnb is more open, not less, if municipalities, landlords, and leases are less restrictive, not more: if the balance of power leans further towards renters, rather than towards owners, right?

Making a city a museum might, on its face, seem like a way to kick people out. But, viewed another way, might represent a more mobile, dynamic future where individuals and families get more access to the world. Eager to hear your POV on this!

*Please correct me if I’m wrong!
** I suspect we’ll never know how many

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