Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The vacation rental industry is mired in claims that it harms neighborhoods and housing markets. Can a nonprofit co-op make the tourist trend a community asset?

In recent years, Airbnb and its competitors have been accused of making housing unaffordable, of draining homes from the long-term rental market, and of eviscerating the character of popular neighborhoods through displacement and overexploitation. In an era punctuated by the effects of a housing shortage, it can seem that vacation rentals stand at odds with the solutions cities and residents are searching for.

But does the business of short-stay rentals have to be so ethically fraught? An ambitious project based in Amsterdam says no.

It’s called Fairbnb, and it’s trying to refashion the home-sharing model so that short-stay apartment rentals can enrich the amenities and housing choices of the communities that host them.

“For a long time, the social impact of traveling was rarely taken into consideration—because at first with vacation apartments, people didn’t feel it,” Sito Veracruz, a co-founder of Fairbnb, tells CityLab. “We are now reckoning with the damaging impact of tourism on communities, not just because of the industry’s growth, but because of its huge expansion into residential areas.”

The project, if successful, could provide a sustainable alternative in a sector where, as Fairbnb’s own promotional material notes, “the promise of ‘home-sharing’ has turned into ‘home-stripping.’”

Fairbnb has been building this alternative for three years now. It already has co-op members in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Lithuania, and has spent time consulting with communities in cities across Europe, including Venice, Bologna, and Barcelona.

While it is only just preparing to accept registrations from hosts, its community-building exercises have attracted more than 700 people who are ready to list their homes. As its launch date nears, Fairbnb is now going through a crowdfunding push, mainly to fast-track technology development, such as a mobile counterpart to its upcoming online site.

Fairbnb’s model diverges from the standard model in several key ways. Like other home-share sites, it plans to levy a commission on bookings (in Fairbnb’s case, of 15 percent, which is broadly similar to Airbnb). Half of this money would be fed back into the local community where a unit is rented out.

That money would be used to fund projects chosen in consultation with the community itself. These might include non-commercial meeting spaces, community centers, or (if the network can generate enough money) social housing. Fairbnb guests would be able to choose the community project that would benefit from their stay. All of those projects will have applied to, and been vetted by, Fairbnb. Guests may even be able to visit their choice of project during their stay.

Neighborhoods that host listings could thus see home-sharing feed investment directly back into their communities, instead of seeing the profits siphoned off by absentee landlords and a distant corporation.

Fairbnb sees a great appetite for this kind of alternative.

“Three years ago when we started, the need for our concept was something we had to explain a lot,” Veracruz said. “With every passing day, as public opinion changes, we have to explain the ‘why’ of our project less and less.”

The change is needed, Veracruz said, because the current home-sharing model has a smash-and-grab approach to communities:

“It’s very important to have a [home-sharing] platform that is accountable and responsible, that is about including social sustainability in the economic sustainability equation,” he said

This sounds promising. Even this more sustainable model could do cities harm, however, if the cities themselves can’t properly control where and in what volume short-stay apartments are allowed to operate. Aware of this, Fairbnb is making a public commitment to follow every local law on vacation apartments to the letter, and to share all relevant data with local authorities. This would also mean a degree of self-policing in places where local monitoring is underpowered.

“We only have legal apartments,” Veracruz said, “and in places where laws are lax, we ourselves have to check the potential impact of a listing. In places with no regulation, we as experts will suggest some rules, but neighbors will also be able to suggest some policies—as has happened during our consultation in Venice, where our policy [for future rentals] is stricter than the municipality requires.”

This approach in itself would make a huge difference, as Airbnb’s current procedures seem to do little to prevent abuse. A recent Dutch report found that 41 percent of Amsterdam’s Airbnb listings hosted guests for more than 60 nights, breaching the citywide cap in place last year (which has since fallen to 30 nights). Barcelona, meanwhile, has had some success reining in the home-sharing sector with a licensing system and action taken against illegal lettings, but only got Airbnb to share its data fully after several years of levying ever-higher fines against the company. For an operator to fully cooperate from the start in sharing data would make things far easier for municipalities to control.

There is of course the risk that, as many cities mobilize against Airbnb, a sustainable alternative could find itself caught in the crossfire. Veracruz is cautiously optimistic that tight restrictions on Airbnb wouldn’t stand in his way.

“We don’t ask cities for any special preference or favor, but so far governments are fine with us, and we are already signing agreements with municipalities in Amsterdam, Venice, and Barcelona,” he said. “We are complying with the regulations, and are being as transparent as they require. I understand that they can’t or won’t promote us, but, frankly, we are the best guys they have seen in ages.”

To assume that a private company would adopt and stick to this kind of good conduct simply for the public good might seem naïve, but Fairbnb isn’t strictly a private company. It’s a nonprofit co-operative, owned and run by workers on capped salaries, with ready-to-go plans for a co-governance system—one developed over three years of community consultation across European cities—in which local communities co-pilot its running, written into its DNA.

So will the model work? It certainly has some advantages, even if the closeness of the network’s name to its main competitor might raise eyebrows, not to mention legal challenges. While Fairbnb could attract sustainability-conscious travelers, there is nothing in its model (beyond, perhaps, obeying the law) that would cut into the profits to be gained by hosts. At the very least, it could provide a tool to pressure Airbnb into more sustainable practices, highlighting the fig-leaf tokenism of such efforts as a new scheme inviting hosts—not Airbnb itself—to donate some earnings to charity.

Above all, it comes at a moment when people are hungry for an alternative, at a time when even an official body like the Netherlands’ tourism board admits it is giving up on promoting its country and moving to simply try to manage the negative effects of the tourism industry. Under these circumstances, many travelers would be delighted to book a vacation apartment without fearing that their very interest in a city risks sapping it of its lifeblood.

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