Can a sharing economy also be a caring economy?
There’s no such thing as a ‘PR problem’ anymore, as Airbnb found out to its cost last week.
The Times reported that the home sharing service had been canvassing London landlords at an exclusive event. The organisers, the piece said, wanted to build a “fake grassroots” movement to head off regulations that curb landlords’ ability to rent out homes on a short-term basis.
With its talk of “young, trendy hosts” who “availed themselves of free food and wine” the article was shot through with inverted snobbery, but it did illustrate how hard it is to fake social movements and that the very act of doing so makes a business an easy target.
An even bigger problem for Airbnb is that its quota of goodwill is in danger of running out. As I’ve argued here before, disruptive tech businesses will suffer for being cavalier about the social consequences of smashing established industries, but Airbnb’s circumstances are uniquely toxic because it occupies the nexus of populist politics: the divide between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
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It’s generally agreed that our current economic policy benefits asset owners, older and richer, many of whom are piling out of long-term letting and onto Airbnb. Meanwhile, young people in big cities are frozen out of home ownership and aren’t yet willing to buy the intellectual line, dreamt up mainly by homeowners, that in future people won’t care what they own and only what they ‘experience’.
It will not have escaped Airbnb’s attention that the under-35s are also its core customers. Right now the majority of young Londoners couldn’t care less who owns their weekend crash pad in Barcelona but when they can’t secure a long-term rental inside Zone 4 you can be sure they’ll look for someone to blame.
We’re already seeing this in Airbnb’s home city of San Francisco, where action groups are posting ‘Wanted’ posters that finger the site for “destroying affordable housing for immigrant, minority and low income families”. Nor are the social consequences lost on existing homeowners, with alarming tales on AirbnbHell.com from those who’ve found themselves living next door to noisy weekend parties.
So when Airbnb boasts that “Sadiq (Khan) loves us right now”, one wonders how long ‘right now’ will last if the company doesn’t do more to show it cares whether its customers have somewhere affordable to live for the eleven months of the year that they’re not on holiday. And you can be sure that, at least in the sense that the term is commonly understood, PR alone will not be the answer.
Mark Lowe is partner at Third City. Follow him on Twitter @markrlowe
Since this blog was published, Airbnb has released a statement in response to the Times' story. It said:
When the impact of online platforms like Airbnb is discussed, the voices of users deserve to be heard. Decisions by policymakers can have profound impacts on their lives; involving them in the debate should not be considered controversial.
In recent days, the British Hospitality Association held a lobby day in parliament for hoteliers and others to press MPs for deregulation, lower VAT rates and action against online booking platforms. This kind of open door engagement is regarded as normal practice for corporations and businesses.
Airbnb hosts in London are typically ordinary Londoners, who don’t have a well-funded trade body to lobby policymakers on their behalf.
We are proud to bring Airbnb hosts together to engage with policymakers and to explain - in their own words - how home sharing helps them live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. We do so openly and transparently.
To suggest that engagement by real people in debates that affect their lives is “underhand” or “fake” flies in the face of common sense democracy.