Fairbnb? Ethical Conference Accommodation


‘Shotgun’ houses in New Orlean’s French District, which I visited for the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. International conferences can be an opportunity to visit some wonderful places, but do we need to be more critical of our contribution to problems with tourism in those places? (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In April I attended the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in New Orleans. In July I will be going to the International Conference of Historical Geographers in Warsaw. I am lucky that my career gives me so many opportunities to travel, but it does come with downsides. As an early career researcher, I have to fund many of the conferences I attend myself (whether I should or not is perhaps a conversation for another day). As such, I need affordable accommodation, which can be very difficult to find. Increasingly, people are turning to Airbnb and other short stay accommodation platforms in order to help manage the costs of conference attendance. However, opposition to websites such as Airbnb is growing, supported by arguments that it drives gentrification and negatively affects local communities. Geographers have frequent discussions about the environmental implications of flying to international conferences. Perhaps we should also be discussing the ethical implications of what we do once our flights land?

I have always wanted to visit New Orleans, and I loved getting the chance to explore the city whilst I was there. However, a huge number of tourists visit the cities every year, and there were several occasions where I felt uncomfortable about the impact of this vast influx that I was part of. In 2016, the number of tourists visiting New Orleans reached 10.45 million, the highest they had been since before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005 (FQBA, 2017). This is compared to a permanent population of about 400,000 (Nola.com, 2018). Whilst this undoubtedly has benefits, not least the $7.41 billion spent by tourists in the city in 2016, it also brings challenges.


An anti-AirBnB sign outside a house in the Treme district of New Orleans, a historically black neighbourhood made popular by an HBO television series. 6% of the houses in Treme have a short-term rental licence (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

One of the most hotly debated issues of tourism recently has been the rise of short stay accommodation websites such as AirBnB. They have been blamed for rapid increases in rents and house prices in popular tourist destinations; a recent article for the Independent blamed AirBnB for 23% rent increases over three years in some parts of Barcelona, a city which has seen an increasing backlash against mass tourism in recent years (Bryant, 2018). Short stay accommodations have also been criticised for damaging local communities, in a number of ways: it is difficult to get to know your neighbours if they are changing once a week; businesses cater to the needs of tourists rather than residents (souvenir shops replace supermarkets); and tourists on their holidays tend to be louder and more raucous than locals that have to get up for work the next day. AirBnB argue that short term rentals have a negligible effect on the housing market and provide a valuable opportunity for people to make money from their spare rooms. The fact remains, however, that many short term rentals are for the whole property, and some ‘hosts’ own and rent out multiple properties.

This new kind of Airbnb-powered gentrification comes with all the downsides of traditional gentrification — home prices and rents are going up, lower-income residents and people of color are moving out — but with fewer upsides. Tourism and gentrification typically bring cleaner streets and less crime, but tourists don’t stick around to clean up the neighborhood, vote in local elections or lobby for better schools.

The Lens, 2017

There have been various attempts to fight back against the damaging impact of short term rentals around the world. Some resistance is legislative. For example, in October 2016 it was made illegal in New York City to rent out flats for less than 30 days (Ashley Carmen, 2017). AirBnB often opposes such measures, however; they attempted to sue New York City for passing the law, eventually backing down on the condition that only hosts would be held liable, not AirBnB itself (Benner, 2016). Different cities have different levels of restrictions on short stay accommodation, and enforcement also varies, so it is not necessarily an effective response.

AirBnB New Orleans

The Inside Airbnb map for New Orleans. Red dots represent entire properties, green ones represent single rooms (Source: Inside Airbnb).

Inside Airbnb is a not-for-profit organisation that provides tools and data for analysing the impact of Airbnb on housing markets. The data is publicly available from Airbnb, and you can either use the tools provided by the website or download the data and analyse it yourself. Data isn’t available for every city in the world, but quite a few are covered, particularly in Europe and North America. Inside Airbnb is a kind of ‘knowledge is power’ form of resistance to short stay accommodation; such data can make arguments about the negative impacts of Airbnb and other similar platforms more persuasive.

Others are taking an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach. Fairbnb is a group attempting to build an ethical short stay accommodation platform based on four main principles: collective ownership, democratic governance, social sustainability, and transparency and accountability (Fairbnb, n.d.). Part of the profits will be reinvested into local projects that counter the negative impacts of tourism and gentrification. There is no launch date for the platform at the moment however, so it might be a while before it gets off the ground, if it ever does.

So where do we as academics fit into all this? Geographers in particular are supposed to have an awareness of our own impact on the world around us, and take ethical considerations into account as a result. Some universities (including Royal Holloway, where I did my PhD) do not allow staff and students travelling on university business to use Airbnb. This is not out of a sense of social responsibility, but because Airbnb do not enforce sufficient health and safety requirements (Royal Holloway, 2017). For those of us who are self-funded, or who’s funding allows the use of Airbnb, it can be an enticingly cheap option. Perhaps we should think twice about this in future.


Sources and Further Reading

Benner, Katie. “Airbnb Ends Fight with New York City Over Fines.” The New York Times. Last modified 3rd December 2016, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/technology/airbnb-ends-fight-with-new-york-city-over-fines.html 

Bryant, Jackie. “What Not to do in Barcelona as a Tourist.” Independent. Last modified 30th April 2018, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/europe/barcelona-travel-what-not-to-do-rules-laws-tourists-protests-overtourism-visitors-a8329086.html

Carmen, Ashley. “New York City Issues First Illegal Airbnb Fines.” The Verge. Last modified 7th February 2017, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at  https://www.theverge.com/2017/2/7/14532388/nyc-airbnb-first-illegal-renting-fines-issued

The Lens. “How AirBnB is Pushing Locals Out of New Orleans’ Coolest Neighbourhoods.” Huffington Post. Last modified 30th October 2017, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/airbnb-new-orleans-housing_us_59f33054e4b03cd20b811699

van der Zee, Renate. “The ‘Airbnb Effect’: Is it Real, and What is it Doing to a City Like Amsterdam?” The Guardian. Last modified 6th October 2016, accessed 16 May 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/06/the-airbnb-effect-amsterdam-fairbnb-property-prices-communities

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