Opinion

Don't be too cynical about Airbnb housing Afghan refugees. Just a bit cynical

The fact Airbnb is housing 20,000 people in their darkest hour matters more than its motivation to do so, writes Jonn Elledge.

Sometimes, when you’re searching, Google will present you with a list of questions that people also ask. When I googled the corporate slogan “live like a local” earlier, the search engine’s first helpful suggested question for me was, “Can you temporarily live in an Airbnb?” which makes me wonder what Google knows about my financial situation that I have yet to find out. 

For some people the answer to this question may shortly be a resounding “yes”. The company’s chief executive Brian Chesky (who is, rather rudely I thought, 39 years old) tweeted on Tuesday that the online accommodation platform would temporarily house 20,000 Afghan refugees at no charge, to help them get resettled in wherever it is they somehow end up.

To do this, it’ll work with NGOs, resettlement agencies and its own non-profit arm, Airbnb.org: that span off from the response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and matches people desperate for accommodation at a time of disaster with people who have both a willingness to help and space.

“My hope,” Chesky added, “is that the Airbnb community will provide them with not only a safe place to rest and start over, but also a warm, welcome home.”

We shouldn’t be too cynical about this. On the face of it, it means help for people in their darkest hour, and it’s a shocking indictment of the British government that Airbnb is promising to take in four times as many refugees as the whole of the UK. (Sure, the government is promising to help 20,000 people too, but to do so over five years, thus rendering the promise effectively meaningless.)

All that matters a whole lot more than the fact the company is almost certainly motivated at least partly by a desire for headlines about what a lovely cuddly company it is, even though its use of the phrase “the Airbnb host community” should carry some form of prison sentence. 

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But there are questions, nonetheless. It hasn’t said exactly how much it’s willing to spend on the initiative, which feels like a pretty big question, or how long it’ll house refugees for: there may be a significant and widespread appetite to help right now, but assisting people to start a new life in a foreign country will require a commitment that sustains long after the crisis stops dominating our news feeds.

It’s also not clear what non-financial support will be available to hosts to help them work with people who are likely to be still processing trauma. In one upsetting but hardly unthinkable situation, is Airbnb.org ready for the possibility that a host gets cold feet and wants their guests out? 

One US study found that a 1 per cent increase in Airbnb listings led to increased rent and house prices… if younger people start to see Airbnb as a contributor to unhinged local property prices, that’s not going to be good for business

Also, we should be a bit cynical about Airbnb’s motives. Many of the headlines the company has inspired over the last few years have been bad, because of a growing consensus that the company’s impact on the housing market has been bad.

Studies have found that the money available from holiday lets in some areas has led to significant numbers of landlords pulling their properties out of the long-term rental market, reducing the number of homes available to tenants.

One US study found that a 1 per cent increase in Airbnb listings led to a 0.018 per cent increase in rents and a 0.026 per cent increase in house prices. If that doesn’t sound that dramatic: the effect of an entirely plausible doubling in the number of Airbnb listings would be 100 times that. 

All this could become a problem for the company: if younger people start to see Airbnb not as the cool app that helps with their holidays but as a contributor to the unhinged local property prices, that’s not going to be good for business. In markets such as New York or Barcelona, it’s already led regulators to step in, limiting the number of days owners can rent out their properties or banning the app altogether. 

So there are very good reasons why Airbnb would like us to see it not as a parasitical company that helps the lucky and affluent profit from housing crisis, but as a community of people that just want to help.

If Airbnb can deliver on Chesky’s promises, then it seems likely this scheme will be a good thing. But that doesn’t mean Airbnb is. 

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