Airbnb’s $30 Billion Listing Must Do More for Cities


Which would you prefer: cheaper rent or a cheaper holiday rental?

I’d wager heavily that most people would answer “rent.” It’s a bigger slice of personal spending. Short-term accommodation accounted for just 1% of U.S. household budgets in 2016, compared to the 16% spent on housing, according to analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The rise of the sharing economy means the prices of both are linked more than ever. Airbnb Inc., which revolutionized travel by making it (slightly) cheaper and easier to find a decent place to stay in popular tourist destinations around the world, has also faced criticism for driving up rents and hollowing out neighborhoods while municipal authorities struggle to catch up.

Now, as the San Francisco-based company gears up to list its shares publicly this year, it’s at least ostensibly trying to make peace with some of its critics. Airbnb on Friday outlined a series of measures aimed at ensuring it works to “serve all stakeholders.” It outlined six groups — guests, hosts, communities, shareholders and employees — then some of the metrics it will use to ensure it’s serving all of them effectively. For instance, it will lean on generally accepted accounting principles for revenue, Ebitda, and free cash flow, a welcome change from some of its tech peers. (WeWork’s “community-adjusted Ebitda,” anyone?) And it plans to spend an average of $10 million per year over the next decade on local initiatives intended to “promote cultural heritage, economic vitality, and sustainable communities, and demonstrate clear local impact.”

So far, so commendable. But the approach appears lacking when it comes to Airbnb’s assessment of what it calls communities. The firm says it wants to “strengthen the communities we serve” and “set a new standard for sustainable travel.” Then it provides a metric which only addresses the latter: it will measure the carbon footprint of both its operations, and the travel facilitated by the Airbnb platform.

As far as the community impact of Airbnb goes, measuring the carbon footprint barely scratches the surface. Yes, it’s important — an upswing in global travel has had huge ramifications for climate change. But cities from Barcelona to Boston are also struggling to deal with the impact that Airbnb has had on their historic districts and trendy neighborhoods. In Barcelona’s Gothic quarter almost 17% of all properties were listed on Airbnb at one point in 2015. In some central London districts, about one in five properties have been listed on Airbnb, according to a 2019 study by University College London academics. 

“It’s a strange form of gentrification, where gentrified tourists are taking over from residents,” said Philipp Rode, executive director of the London School of Economics’ cities center.

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Written by Alex Webb for