Tax Airbnb hosts to provide affordable housing

We live in a world where technology is disrupting old business models. Whether it be Uber, Deliveroo or Airbnb – the web has broken down the layers between consumers and service providers with both positive and negative consequences, depending on where you sit in the chain.

I’ve just returned from Berlin where the city has passed a law making it illegal to rent out entire apartments using the global accommodation website Airbnb. This follows similar moves in San Francisco and elsewhere as a response to locals fed up with being forced out of an already highly pressured housing market.

Billboards around town make local sentiments clear. “F— Airbnb,” they say. In a city such as Berlin, famous for its rent controls and progressive social policies protecting tenants rights, perhaps the negative reaction is not altogether unexpected.

At any rate, it didn’t seem to be working because I had rented out an Airbnb place in the centre of Kruetzberg without a hitch. So how practical is such a ban and should we consider doing the same in Australia where the housing situation is worse – with a whole generation effectively locked out of the housing market?

In the future will apartments in popular locations simply become Airbnb cash cows – and entire apartment blocks in Bondi or St Kilda become unofficial and unregulated Airbnb hotels?

It seems obvious that these sites, which fit into the access economy umbrella (not to be confused with the more egalitarian share economy), simply add to the pressure on housing by further limiting the affordable rental options for locals and instead changing premium prices for cashed-up tourists.

Two landmark court cases in Melbourne recently ruled in favour of property owners – their tenants were not allowed to sublet the owners’ property on Airbnb without permission – and that other property owners or the body corporate couldn’t stop owners from renting out their properties.
So under law it is only those of us fortunate enough to own property who can benefit from such platforms – further widening the gap between rich property owners and those simply trying to break into the market.

On the other hand, I know of people in Melbourne who have no other income; hosting on Airbnb becomes a lifeline. And let’s be honest – Airbnb hasn’t created the inner city housing shortage – cities around the world have been experiencing that long before these platforms came along. But it could make it worse if it is left unregulated at the whim of market forces.

As someone who has travelled extensively for several decades and frequently made use of online platforms including Airbnb and Couchsurfing as both a host and a guest – it strikes me as rather pointless to try to tame the free will of people to use such platforms as they choose. One could end up a bitter old man raising fists against the inevitable onrush of modernity.

But there is a strong argument for governments to regulate – directing tax revenue from such platforms to building new, more accessible housing options for locals. If even a small percentage of tax revenue from Airbnb hosts was directed towards building affordable housing for locals locked out of the property market that couldchange the equation and redress the negative consequences of the new online economy.

In addition, we can all play a role by playing fair in the new online marketplace. Call me idealistic, but if Airbnb hosts exercise a modicum of restraint in their pricing they might find they have a more positive experience by generating goodwill among their guests. When Couchsurfing first become popular in the early 2000s it was built on a spirit of idealism and solidarity with a global community of travellers. In 2016, Airbnb has become like Couchsurfing for the middle classes.

Attempting to ban such sites as Berlin has done is not the way to go – but that needn’t mean we lose sight of the idealism and globalism of the original vision of a global shared economy. Leadership from governments can help to strike the right balance. Rather than contributing to the serious problem of an inaccessible housing market – global accommodation websites could become part of the solution.

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald

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