Airbnb was one of a host of libertarian West Coast start-ups that supposedly heralded the beginning of a digitally enabled ‘sharing’ economy. A decade or so later, this $130 billion valued corporation has become synonymous the world over with intensified gentrification and other housing pressures on working-class communities.
If the Airbnb menace has been most acutely experienced in international tourist destinations—such as the southern European cities of Barcelona and Lisbon—its impact is not absent from the UK, which had over 250,000 Airbnb properties listed by January 2020. Short-term rentals now comprise a significant part of the present wave of the capitalist restructuring of UK housing markets through various forms of financialisation, visible from small villages to the big cities.
In Manchester, the housing movement has long warned about the problems of Airbnb in the city, and how short-term rentals may intensify the housing crisis being experienced in our neighbourhoods. Despite some limited actions from the Council, it seems that these warnings have not been taken sufficiently seriously.
In response, a group of concerned Mancunians, including members of Greater Manchester Tenants Union and Greater Manchester Housing Action, have come together to produce a report that assesses the current and future impact of Airbnb on the city. Our findings reinforce the need for local authorities in the UK to better understand how short-term rental markets are disrupting the human right to housing, and to find ways to effectively combat this growing threat.
Exacerbating the Crisis
Moss Side is a dense, popular inner-city neighbourhood not far from the bars and entertainment venues of central Manchester. There are a number of red-bricked, Victorian terraced streets you can walk down that offer tell-tale signs that some of the houses have been converted to short-term rentals.
Maybe it’s the large extension built at the back, enabling the landlord to add an extra bedroom or two. Maybe it’s the fact that the houses seem unoccupied during the week. On weekend nights, you might hear the sound of thumping bass from one of the Airbnb ‘party flats’ that have become increasingly prevalent. The composition of housing in the neighbourhood is changing, but up to now there has been little analysis of how.
As part of our work, a fellow researcher found one street in Moss Side that offered a bleak example of what Airbnb has done to the area. The transfer of family housing into short-term rentals has become so acute that five out of the last eight houses sold on the street went to landlords with the express intention of turning them into short-term rentals.
For the people of Moss Side, the costs of these trends are not just felt in the nuisance and disturbances of living adjacent to Airbnb properties. Soaring rents and house prices have accompanied this transformation of the housing stock. Displacement of working-class households out of the neighbourhood is sure to follow.
Our report also looked at broader city-level dynamics. The results were as worrying as the findings from the research conducted in Moss Side. Figures suggested if pre-pandemic growth trends continued at the same level they had for the previous four-year period, Manchester would lose huge chunks of its housing stock to short-term lets. There was an increase of a factor of three in the number of listings and of four in the number of entire properties listed on Airbnb in Manchester from 2016 to 2020, with an average of 263 entire properties being added each year.
By the end of the decade, the transfer of long-term rental properties into the short-term sector might shut out over 4,000 households, or 9,400 residents. With more than 13,000 households on the social housing waiting list, home sharing platforms such as Airbnb will massively exacerbate the housing crisis.
Landlords and Local Government
One only has to consider the economics of the industry to see why a landlord might choose to turn their property holdings to Airbnb rather than the traditional private rented sector. These rental markets are more lucrative than longer term letting arrangements—a landlord will make a higher return on a short-term let than on a regular long-term let.
In Manchester City Centre, for example, the average rent available for a landlord letting their apartment out on a long-lease is between £800 and £1000 per month. By contrast, as a short term let, at the average of £95 per night, they stand to make £1,710 per month if they’re let out 60 percent of the time, and £2,300 if the occupancy rate rises to 80 percent.
Listings composed of single rooms, which are central to Airbnb ‘home sharing’ marketing, make up fewer than one in ten listings (eight percent) globally. Another 59 percent are so-called ‘professional accommodation’, a figure which rises to 92 percent if entire home rentals and multiple room listings are included. Far from the claims of Airbnb that their platform enables home ‘sharing’, the reality is they operate as a mechanism for commercial landlords to increase their rental incomes from the housing market.
Much has been written of the complex interplay between the local or national state and capital in driving waves of financialisation in the built environment. The growth of the Build-to-Rent sector is one outcome of this, a process of financialisation from above. As Raquel Rolnik has argued, the rise of short-term letting can be viewed as a form of financialisation ‘from below’—introducing a new dynamic of accelerated rentiership into local housing markets, and disrupting communities in the process.
Across the country, local government must wake up to this new reality before it’s too late. From Airbnb’s corporate lobbying tactics through to the empty promises of the Short Term Accommodation Association, councils such as Manchester’s have too often let themselves be deceived as to the real situation.
Our report sets out national and international examples of how towns and cities can fight back against the spectre of short term rentals. Like the wider struggle for housing justice, there are no easy answers—but to do nothing about the rise of Airbnb in our communities risks giving capitalists even more power to shape our everyday lives.