It has occurred to me a number of times over the course of the past few weeks that for the past six months we have been living in other people’s homes. Because we’ve been renting on the short-term rental market (Airbnb, Homestay, VRBO) we’ve stayed in hotels maybe 10 nights out of the 180-odd nights that have passed since we left Denver. By the same token, for that same period of time, other people have been living in our home in Denver. We get updates every so often from our property managers, but for the most part, we don’t hear anything, so I can only assume that things are just fine.
Living like this prompts you to think about the nature our lives together and the domestic spaces we inhabit. Sipping coffee from other people’s mugs, eating dinner from other people’s plates, relaxing on other people’s sofas and sleeping in other people’s beds for a considerable period of time makes you wonder about things: Where is our home? How do the things we surround ourselves with hold our memories? What holds us together? What pulls us apart?
A house is brick and mortar. It’s something you buy and sell and occupy or allow someone else to occupy for you. A house is defined by legal documents like the deed or mortgage that sits in a box in your basement, and it’s defined through space–there’s a foundation, walls and a roof and there’s a fence that separates your property from your neighbors’.
A home, on the other hand, gathers up the emotional current of family life; it holds our memories, conversations, arguments, joys and failures. A home is the box of Christmas ornaments in your storage closet, the creaky step on the stairs that you just can’t fix and aren’t really sure that you wish to. A home is the way your front door key slides into the lock and the window in your bedroom that you gaze from in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.
A hotel room is an instrument–you use it for a night or two, maybe three, and it’s primarily a place to drop your bags and return to after a day of sightseeing. There’s a bed and a bathroom and there are some mass-produced cups and glasses and towels, but a hotel room isn’t populated with material objects that hold memories, that carry on traditions and that shine a light onto the interiors of our lives. A hotel room doesn’t leave anything behind. Once you leave, the cleaning crew comes through as sweeps, dusts and wipes away what you left behind.
I often wonder how living in other people’s homes has changed our experiences on the road, and while I’m sure staying in hotels would have been just fine, I also think that we would have missed some of the things we’ve gained. Beyond the costs and the inconvenience of staying in hotels, living in Airbnbs gives you access to a different kind of travel. It’s a travel of existence, as opposed to a travel of instrumentality.
Because you communicate directly with the Airbnb hosts, you learn things about their lives just through exchanging information and sorting out arrival and departure plans. My favorite Airbnb homes are the ones that are occupied by the owners. This situation was actually quite common among the places we stayed and it’s especially the case when you rent outside tourist regions and when you get off that tourist grid. In these homes, you can, in some ways, literally see and feel the imprint of other lives in the houses you are visiting. Generally, these properties are the primary residence of the owners, who clear out when renters arrive. I like these kinds of arrangements because you are actually living in someone’s house and you are sharing in a part of their lives. It’s a home that is populated with material items that have personal and family history.
The owner of the shotgun row home we rented in Sydney, Australia collected Asian art and had children’s drawings (his nephews and nieces, I presumed) taped to the refrigerator. The flat we rented in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was owned by a British national whose bookshelves were stuffed with French literature and Cambodian history and whose walls were lined with portraits of family members. With their fine English suits and dresses and their knowing, confident gazes, they looked like they came from a long line of diplomats. The frayed edges of the blanket on the sofa of the young woman’s flat in Tokyo, the chips and stains in the tea cups of the Chinese couple’s hi-rise in Auckland, the weathered picnic table in the backyard of the farm house in Rotorua, New Zealand–all these things, all this stuff, makes up the history of other people’s lives that we, in some small way, participated and shared in. It causes me to wonder: what will our home in Denver feel like when return? Will it feel, for a time, just like another short-term rental which we are passing through? Or will we immediately reconnect with the material world that we’d left behind?
Five years ago, the short-term rental market barely existed so we would have spent the better part of the last six months in hotels. There are some real benefits in renting off the short-term rental market. From a purely economic perspective, you save a lot of money. A three-star hotel room in any given European city would be a minimum of 150 euros a night, about twice what we generally spend on an Airbnb. So, thinking like an economist, this is great for everyone: we have more money in our pockets to spend in restaurants and shops and the local economy, in turn, the community benefits from our extra Euros floating around. By the same token, our house in Denver is nearly fully occupied, so are we bringing in revenue to pay off the mortgage and there are people in the house, making it less likely to be broken into or flooded from a broken pipe.
The short-term rental market also offers you a wider range of geographical places to stay in most cities. Most hotels, that is, are located in central tourist areas (city centers) or commercial areas (like near airports) so you can get caught in tourist traps and geographical spaces that are dominated by multinational commercial interests. The short-term rental market, though, is made up of properties in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout most major cities. When we were in Sydney, for instance, we stayed in Surrey Hills, a neighborhood about three light rail stops from the main business district. We ate in locally owned restaurants, shopped in small markets and just sort of mixed in with the other residents of Surrey Hills. This was the case, as well, in our stays in Phnom Penh, Tokyo, Budapest, Rome and Seville.
But lest this starts to sound like free advertising for the short-term rental market, let me say that there’s also a dark side to this whole thing because while it’s easy for me to hail the cost and convenience of Airbnb rentals, the reality is that Airbnb rentals can do real damage in many places. Think about it: you own a two bedroom flat in downtown Barcelona and you start to realize that you can make more money renting your place through Airbnb. What are you going to do? Or, worse: you are an estate agent/real estate developer and you start buying up whole apartment complexes in downtown Barcelona, turning a majority of the units over to Airbnb rentals. That’s great for the developer and the landlord and for people like me, but if you live in one of these areas, how would you feel if swaths of the real estate market in your neighborhood started getting turned over to short-term rentals?
It took me way too long to come around to this understanding. In fact, I remember almost the exact moment that I snapped out of this optimistic haze and started thinking about the deeper and darker implications of short-term rental market: Sujata and I were out for a stroll in Barcelona on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful evening. There were loads of people out on the streets, there was music in the cafes and bars, folks were walking around with bags of groceries to make their Christmas meals and bags of presents to give to their loved ones. Everyone seemed happy and I just kept looking around in wonderment that I was here, in the middle of Barcelona, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, during the holiday season. Sujata broke my naive reverie by declaring, “You know, this is great and all, but what is this city going to look like in five years when this whole neighborhood is turned over to Airbnb rentals.”
Most of us enjoy living where we live because we know and trust our neighbors. Strong communities and strong neighborhoods are made up of families and individuals who have a stake in the communities they live in and who watch out for each other. Back home in Denver, there have been countless times when I’m making something in the kitchen and realize that I’m short one ingredient so I just send the kids over to our neighbors to make up the difference. They go over to Wayne and Darlene’s for an egg or an onion or down to Matt and Malia’s for a fist full of basil (or more likely, two fingers of whiskey). And what we take is always paid back: homemade cookies for the eggs, a bowl of fresh pesto for the basil and, a beer or two for the whiskey. And it’s not just about borrowing household items. It’s quid pro quo; you take a little and you give a little and in the exchange you develop relationships with your neighbors. Sure, you get people watching your back, but you also get the richness of knowing the people who live on your block.
You can’t operate that way, though, in a community that’s dominated by short-term rentals. It’s not so much that people don’t trust each other; they just don’t know each other and ultimately not knowing breeds mistrust.
So, I get it that great cities like London, Barcelona and New York are wary of short-term rentals eating into their communities. This dynamic is a testament to the complexity of living in the globalized world we live in. The benefits abound, and an argument can be made that those benefits are shared, to some extent, across a diverse and wide range of participants. The deleterious aspects are there as well, although they are a bit more difficult to see (or easier to ignore). This, I suspect, is the nature of the economic world we live in. Multinational corporations like Apple and Airbnb (I think it will be offered as an IPO this year) provide us with reasonably inexpensive goods and services that make our lives easier on many levels. So easy, in fact, that it benefits us to ignore what lies underneath. That said, I don’t expect that we will stop renting Airbnbs because of ethical considerations. But it does, I think, point to the fact that we need strong and ethically-minded public officials who know how to establish fair and thoughtful legislation that allows for the kind of freedom and adventure that a traveler experiences through Airbnb and, at the same time, protects and nourishes the integrity of community life.