Is AirBnb Globalizing Gentrification?

What I mean by the title of this piece is not that gentrification is suddenly going global, as it’s a local phenomenon that has been happening in cities around the planet for decades.  What I mean is that whereas in the past gentrification was about rich residents from other parts of town moving into working class communities, it’s now also a process of well off people from anywhere in the world contributing to mass evictions just by going on vacation.  Without a doubt, AirBnb is “disrupting” traditional housing markets in places like San Francisco, but not in a good way.

Consider the Mission in San Francisco.  The 24% of units taken offline as a result of AirBnb have not been bought up by eager new tech money that’s just moved to the city.  In The Mission that number is closer to 30%.  They are being rented out to people from who knows where who are drawn to the area for who knows what reason (probably all the new fancy restaurants, coffee shops, and flocks of disturbingly identical-looking hipsters-bros).  The strange irony of all of this is that the benefits of tourism traditionally touted by the City’s tourism industries are now being cancelled out by a new cost: tourism creates tens of thousands of low-skill jobs for people who, thanks to tourism + AirBnb, are less likely to be able to afford to live in the city anyways! 

Chew on that for a moment.  Is San Francisco going to end up like Santa Barbara or many of those beach towns in Florida where only the super-rich actually live there and the janitors, dishwashers and cooks mostly commute in from smoggy inland areas?  The city has two geographic bottlenecks on its north and east side—pushing more workers over those bridges isn’t going to help with meeting greenhouse gas emissions goals (not to mention the developmental and educational damage to children when their parents must spend 2 hours a day commuting).

An average hotel room in the city in 2014 was roughly $187.  Putz around on AirBinb for a while looking at sites in the city, and you’ll find the distribution may be only slightly lower in places like the mission (although I’m not being scientific here).  Are we creating an economy where tourists can spend $20-$30 less a night for a hotel at the expense of the existence of neighborhoods affordable to working families?  Is that what “disruptive technology” really means?

I don’t mean to sound so extreme, I have in fact used AirBnB once to stay in a rather nice part of northern Chicago (everyone looks so miserable in that city for some reason).    But what is the “disruptive” crowd offering up that actually improves the lives of working families?  Micro-Units?  That’s great for a single person like me, but you can’t raise a family in a closet.

Published by mattdpalm

Doctoral Student UC Davis USDOT Graduate Eisenhower Fellow 2014-2015

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