Is Airbnb a wonderful economic alternative based on sharing and morality? Or is it simply an illustration of our labour market being so problematic that people get more creative to make ends meet? A former Airbnb member tells her side of the story.
Where better to carry out an interview about Airbnb than in the lobby of a hotel? Sarah* and I met a couple of weeks after I posted my blog on Airbnb from the perspective of neighbours. As I mentioned in that blog, there are about 10,500 Airbnb locations in Amsterdam. About two thousand of these apartments are thought to be illegal hotels, rented out by agencies like Living Capital and other players in the real estate business.
It all started in 2011. After Sarah graduated, she wanted to travel for four months and looked for someone to stay in her studio (23 m2). She was renting this room, close to the city centre of Amsterdam, from a landlord who was himself “getting rich at one of the beaches at the Spanish Costa del Sol” while letting his property bring in the money. Sarah was planning to do the regular thing of subletting the room to a student to cover the costs of the rent. Then a friend pointed out that she could also try something else, something that might even cover part of her travelling costs: why not sublet the room through Airbnb? So Sarah rented out her room for one and a half months, earning enough to cover both the rent and part of her travelling costs. So far, so good.
But when she came back, she found herself in the same position as many other recent graduates, without a job. Unemployed, but with bills to pay, she decided to let out her room once or twice a month for a few days each time; she herself then stayed at her boyfriend’s place. She charged sixty to seventy euros per night, depending on special events like Kingsday and the Amsterdam Dance Event. All in all, she could at least pay the rent. As Sarah puts it: “I paid my taxes and informed the neighbours. It was a purely practical and economic decision, because I needed money to pay the rent and buy groceries. It didn’t make me rich.”
The impersonal intimate space
From then on, every Thursday, before her guests arrived, Sarah tidied up her room. She put an extra cover over her mattress and replaced her own pillow with a guest pillow. She had one big closet with a lock where she stored her valuable items. She also had a few “personal things that don’t need a lock, but that also feel uncomfortable to leave in the sight of my guest. Valuable in the sense of personal stuff.” She had three boxes under her bed, one filled with books, one with candles, and the other with family pictures and postcards. “I stripped my room of everything that had ‘this is my room’ written all over it.” On the day the guests arrived, Sarah let them in, gave them a key, and left. “I made a small book of instructions about the stove, washing machine, and the like, so I didn’t even have to show them all that. I always felt that it was part of the deal that I should leave as soon as possible after their arrival.”
To make sure her guests would treat her studio with respect, she selected them carefully. Sarah had a preference for slightly older people, or people who were in town for business. Only once did her selection fail: two sisters made a complete mess of her room, and Sarah found empty vodka bottles and cigarettes everywhere. She explains how these less respectable Airbnb visitors are ‘punished’ by reviews, or rather, the absence of reviews. “They paid a cleaning fine of twenty-five euros and I did not write a review." She did not even write a bad review. "I actually only wrote reviews when guests were extremely nice, if they left a bottle of wine or something. Otherwise I didn’t much bother to write reviews; they could write something bad about you as well.”
My home and my market
Sarah does now have work, but working as a freelance producer for six months of the year and in healthcare - the other six months is not exactly lucrative. Sarah emphasised that subletting her room was a source of income alongside other jobs. This leaves us with the question whether Airbnb is really this wonderful economic alternative based on sharing and morality? Or is it simply that the current labour market is so bad that people have to rent out their homes to get by?
In Sarah’s case, the concept of Airbnb is more a reflection of the current labour situation than of ‘the sharing economy’ or even tourism. Similarly, it shows that the Airbnb phenomenon is not only a complex practice, with many different perspectives and interests, but also a diverse one. And not only rental agencies, but people like Sarah as well, aim to use it in their own interests.
Sarah moved out of her studio last year and now shares an apartment with two others, so she can no longer rent out her room for short stays. I asked her if she would consider renting to tourists again. “Yes, definitely. And I have to say that Airbnb is a fantastic facilitator,” she said. But then she continued: “When I was cycling from my house towards Dam square the other day I got so annoyed with all the tourists walking and cycling around like little ants.” And thinking out loud she said: “This whole Airbnb thing – is it cutting off your nose to spite your face?”
* Sarah is a pseudonym