Billing itself as Community Powered Tourism, a startup called FairBnB is aiming to bring a change to the way short term, internet-based rentals are offered in cities and tourist destinations. One that benefits the community as well as the landlords. By Jeremy Torr.
Amsterdam. 4 May, 2019. AirBnB started its journey in the online accommodation business in 2008, with a simple website offering a San Francisco airbed for weekends. Since then it has expanded to a multi-billion dollar corporation brokering short term tourist accommodation for millions of users everywhere on earth.
But its success has led to (presumably unforeseen) consequences. Professional AirBnB hosts buy or rent multiple properties in popular destinations – think Barcelona, Berlin, Amsterdam, Venice – and turn room letting into a full-time business; a business that sometimes flouts both local housing regulations and income tax requirements in the process. And one that in the process that removes viable property from the reach of those local renters, craftsmen and buyers which give the city its tourist appeal.
“In the last forty years the number of residents and craft businesses based in the historic centre of Venice has halved,” said Andrea Bertoldini, President of the Venice Craftsmen Confederation at a recent emergency meeting on the future of Venice. For the city to keep it culture and appeal, says Bertoldini “… demands drastic and lasting interventions if it is to retain what remains of its craftsmanship; social glue, (and) generator of income and employment,” he adds.
Supporting this view, a report from the Corporate European Observatory asserts that in Europe, there is a “significant commercial element (rather than) a grassroots image” when it comes to the expanding number of short-term rentals onto the market. Indeed, AirBnB spent up to €500,000 in 2016 just on lobbying for more permits in more cities. Which in turn meant less housing for full-time inhabitants – or unrealistically high rents if people opt to stay.
One Venetian who saw this decline in real inhabitants and decided to do something about it is Emanuele Dal Carlo, an entrepreneur and social activist from Venice. In 2015, he set up a think tank called RESET Venezia that helped lift the lid on the growing negative phenomenon of short term rentals in Venice and their effect on residents.
“Venice is the canary in the coal mine of the tourism industry,” says Dal Carlo. “Here we see the ugly side of extractive businesses, ten years in advance. But it also (offers) an open air lab where we can experiment with solutions for sustainable tourism,” he says. The key outcome of Dal Carlo’s RESET initiative has been the formation of a new pan-European accommodation website called FairBnB – with an obvious verbal prod at the industry’s biggest player.
Claiming to “bring changes you wish to see in your neighbourhood, and in the destinations you visit,” the FairBnB site is based on a co-op principle that promotes socially productive accommodation sharing, not what some pundits call the “yuppie-based, instagram-happy hollowing out of cities.”
Fairbnb was started up in 2016 to help create a “just and alternative to existing home-sharing platforms.” Initially the movement emerged in Venice and linked up with like minded activists in Amsterdam. Once established, other similar groups from all over Europe joined in to help shape the final model.
“We are launching a vacation rental platform which gives back 50% of its revenues to support local community projects,” say the organisers. “Projects such as social housing for residents, community gardens and more,” they add. Unlike AirBnB, it also aims to collaborate with local municipalities to ensure the full legality of rented properties, and with local residents to ensure community voice is heard when formulating how it will operate in their community.
The core aim, to provide a community-centred alternative to current vacation rental platforms that prioritise people over profit, will also offer better potential for authentic, sustainable, and intimate travel experiences they say - unlike Venice which is in danger of losing its soul as the short term renters push out the very people they are flocking to see.
One element of FairBnB’s mission that could help reverse the unbalanced commercialisation of destination accommodation space is FairBnB’s insistence on what it calls “real homesharing”, or a one house : one host policy.
“And to strengthen communities, half our earnings are invested in local sustainability projects that counter the negative effects of tourism,” says the group. “Communities select the projects they want to support in their neighbourhoods,” it adds in its manifesto. This multi-stakeholder co-operative format is designed to keep earnings within communities, not export them to overseas corporations, and to ensure that planning and permit decisions favour the well-being of neighbourhoods, not investors.
It’s a highly laudable project, and one that many long-term city dwellers would without doubt support. And it’s looking for new members.
“We are a community of engaged citizens, researchers, and professionals aiming to put the word “share” back into the sharing economy,” say the founders. “We advocate for the need of combining strong regulations with participatory bottom-up projects able to keep this economy as a real non-extractive alternative, positive both for cities and citizens.”