People were already living there before
While the Irvine study showed that Airbnb bans can drive down rents, there was already plenty of research showing the flip side of the coin: when short-term rentals come to town, prices go up. A 2020 study of short-term rentals in Berlin concluded that apartments posted on Airbnb increased prices in nearby areas. And a 2017 study in Boston came to a similar conclusion. Others have documented these impacts on rentals across the United States, including 2021 research that estimated that Airbnb listings accounted for one-fifth of rental growth in zip codes with a median proportion of people owning and occupying their home.
If we take into account the law of supply and demand, the findings make sense. When the supply of a good decreases but demand stays the same, the price of that good will go up. That's what Airbnb does with the supply of housing. According to the Berlin and Boston studies, when houses or apartments are taken off the market long-term to be used as tourist rentals, the supply of housing decreases. But residents still need a place to live, so they are forced to pay more. Irvine researchers calculated that rents dropped after the local ban because, when landlords put their Airbnbs back on the market as long-term rentals, there was more housing supply. Suddenly, landlords had to compete for tenants, making it harder for them to raise rents. The Irvine study found little evidence for alternative theories, such as the idea that the Airbnb ban hurt the local economy by reducing tourism, thus displacing renters and decreasing demand for rentals.
It's "common sense," according to Cox. "It's not an abstract commodity. There used to be people living there," she said of short-term rentals.
When I was a local reporter in Burlington, Vermont (where I covered the city's desperate housing crisis), I lived in an apartment in a rundown old downtown building, which I rented for $1,300 a month (about 1,200 euros). Shortly after I moved in, in June 2021, the unit was renovated, filled with the ugliest Ikea furniture I'd ever seen, and turned into an Airbnb, where it goes for almost $300 a night if you include the cheating "cleaning fee." If you do the math, that apartment is much more profitable for the owner as a short-term rental, even factoring in the cost of aesthetic improvements. The housing is likely to generate thousands of dollars more per month than what I was paying in rent. Given these incentives, it would take a strict prohibition to turn the apartment back into a long-term rental. Otherwise, why would the owner take such a loss?
To address this phenomenon, some places, such as Summit County in Colorado, have begun paying landlords to convert vacation rentals to long-term housing. In the short term, this type of initiative could help reclaim housing. But it is expensive (and probably unsustainable) for cities to indefinitely pay the difference between long-term and short-term renters. In Summit County, the program spent $1.65 million over 2 years on just 87 homes.
A desperate need for housing
The arguments against New York's ban were as follows: some said Airbnbs were not a major factor in the city's housing crisis. Others argued that the homes would sit empty if they were not used for Airbnbs, or that they would only benefit higher-income renters, not renters in need of affordable housing. In its lawsuit against the city, Airbnb argued that the ban would "exacerbate the very problem of housing availability and affordability" by increasing hotel development.
When asked to comment on Airbnb's impact on housing affordability, a company representative had this to say:
"There are a number of complex factors driving the current housing affordability crisis (from growing income inequality, to decades of exclusionary zoning, and even changing location preferences post-pandemic, including the rise of telecommuting), but many experts agree that the primary driver of the affordability crisis is chronic underproduction of housing, not short-term rentals. Unfortunately, tourist rentals, which in most cities represent a tiny part of the local housing stock, have become a convenient but misguided scapegoat for a housing crisis that began long before the founding of Airbnb."
The spokesperson added that in New York City, "there is no evidence that the new rules will help alleviate the city's housing affordability problems," pointing to a statement by a former Deputy Mayor for Housing, Alicia Glen, that she had seen no evidence that short-term rentals had a significant impact on the housing crisis.
Based on research, it appears that Airbnb bans have a more significant impact on the availability of higher quality, less affordable housing; housing, in other words, that is more likely to become Airbnb. But that doesn't mean the bans won't also benefit low-income renters. Increasing the supply of housing for higher-income renters can help reduce pressure on the rental costs of low-income renters. It's a "helpful and healthy move for the overall housing market," according to Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of policy and field organizing at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
And that's especially true, she continues, "if I look at a place like New York City, where there is a tremendous need for housing at all income levels."
Also note the significant disparities that exist in the United States between homeowners and renters. For example, homeowners, especially those who own more than one home, are overwhelmingly white. And renters in the U.S. are more likely to be people of color, have lower incomes, and be disadvantaged for other reasons. Vacation rentals only exacerbate these inequalities by driving up the median rental price and putting profits in the hands of landlords. On the other hand, increasing the supply of housing and reducing rents can help vulnerable tenants.
Of course, banning Airbnb is not a panacea for the devastating lack of affordable housing. Depending on the housing market in question, the impact of this measure could be barely marginal on prices. But that doesn't mean it's not worth a try. Housing is a commodity, and we should do everything we can to create more of it.
"If we wait until we have a single solution that solves all the problems, we won't make progress," Saadian argued.
Of course, the housing crisis is not confined to the United States; in Spain it has also become a serious problem, especially in the big cities. Renting an apartment is becoming more and more complicated, not only because of prices but also because of the requirements demanded by landlords. And the same goes for buying: if you are young, and you want to buy your own home, you may be in one of the worst times to do so.
Will the Airbnb ban be a possible solution?
Author: Katya Schwenk