Until recently, Airbnb Inc. encapsulated the first-world problems of living in a global “superstar” city.
Over the past decade, the app that connects fly-by-night tourists and short-term renters to “cozy” lofts and five-star “experiences” morphed into a gig-economy nightmare for cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona. Booming demand fueled an over-supply of tourists, an under-supply of housing for locals and extra strain on public infrastructure. Scammers and fraudsters prospered. Many cities began a clamp-down.
That all seems like ancient history now.
If you could freely walk the world’s most famous city streets today, you would see humanity stopped in its tracks. National lockdowns and global travel bans have emptied bustling hotspots like Sydney’s Opera House, Bangkok’s night markets, the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Colosseum in Rome. Global tourist traps are being slammed shut, and the ecosystem that sprang up around them is falling apart — including Airbnb. Apartments once reserved for well-heeled tourists have seen bookings slump anywhere from 41% to 96%. They’re now on long-term rental sites or offered to health workers in solidarity.
At the moment, we’re all probably eager for the crush of humanity to come back to our cities. But when the sound of ambulance sirens stops filling the streets of Paris and Rome, and the stifling oppression of self-isolation lifts, we might still pine for a “cratering” of the Airbnb economy. That sounds harsh considering some use it to get spare cash out of their spare room — the firm says 14% of hosts are from households that include teachers. But in London or Paris, where the price of some studio apartments can run over $1 million, it’s unlikely to be teachers earning the equivalent of $30,000 who are able to offer central pied-à-terre to overseas visitors.
Paris has 100,000 empty homes and 100,000 second homes, according to the mayor’s office, fueling a sense of social injustice. One study of Airbnb in a Lisbon neighborhood between 2015 and 2017 found it looked less like a sharing economy and more like a buy-to-let craze, with 99% of short-term rentals marketed all year round. “Short-term rentals have had a disastrous impact on cities’ rental markets,” McGill University’s David Wachsmuth told The Intelligencer last month. Will a post-Covid-19 society really want that back?As Airbnb hosts apply for financial support to tide them over, they might reflect on a future that could be very different. Post-coronavirus tourism and city life may not rebound as quickly or smoothly as after previous disasters like 9/11 or SARS. Already, in China, the slow return of tourism is — understandably — skewed towards domestic, not international, trips. If France loses a chunk of its 2 million annual Chinese visitors and their 4 billion euros ($4.4 billion) in associated spending, that’s a rough prospect for rentals. But it will be good for housing stock. And Europe will have an incentive to cultivate its own domestic tourism industry. Satellite museums such as the Louvre-Lens, or lesser-known alternatives to globally-renowned hotspots — like Treviso, near Venice — might prosper.
It’s not just tourism: How we work, and travel for work, could also change long-term. Lockdowns in Italy and France have already seen irresponsible city-dwelling Northerners descend on family homes and rural towns in the south. They might stay there if working from home turns out to be a durable, safe option as countries ramp up tests and vaccine research. That’s a sobering thought for the likes of WeWork, which was cutting jobs and racking up losses even before the virus struck. Meanwhile, as urban-geography expert Laurent Chalard points out, it is industries out in the sticks that are thriving as city offices fall silent. Forgotten French textile factories are roaring back to life to make medical equipment. Society is asking for more essential goods and fewer ancillary services.
We shouldn’t imagine that cities will lose their ability to concentrate jobs, people and money. Europe’s greatest cities have survived plague, cholera and wars deadlier than Covid-19. And we will crave human contact even more after this virus, reckons venture-capital investor Stefano Bernardi, who is a rarity among his peer group as someone who shunned cities to live in the Dolomite mountains. As anyone currently juggling conference calls and childcare can attest, real face-time has value.
Still, this crisis may be a chance for a more balanced recovery than simply a return to the norms of over-valued, over-crowded and over-polluted cities. And if your next vacation is a trip to the suburbs, that will give the Mona Lisa more time to put her feet up.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.