photo: rooftops in Paris, France
The proliferation of Airbnb properties in Paris is generating a backlash to the company's Olympic sponsorship deal. Thibault Camus/AP

The home-rental company inked a massive deal to sponsor the Olympics until 2028—over fierce objections from the host city for the 2024 Games.

Looking back, the International Olympic Committee’s announcement Monday that Airbnb will be the chief sponsor for the Games until 2028 was probably not ideally timed. The IOC announced Airbnb’s starring sponsorship role in the five summer and winter events for the next nine years on the very same day that Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris—the host city for the 2024 Summer Games—promised a referendum on limiting the home-rental giant’s activities in the city if re-elected in March 2020. The following day, Hidalgo deputy Ian Brossat appeared at the European Court of Justice, to defend its decision to fine a Paris Airbnb host who is challenging their decision as unlawful.

This awkward convergence is perhaps not the sort of publicity either Airbnb or the IOC were seeking. And it got worse: On Wednesday, France’s hotel association announced that they will “suspend their participation” with the Olympic Games in protest at the choice of a sponsor who “does not respect the rules.” An event intended to showcase the strengths of contemporary Paris has thus already sparked a heated debate over Airbnb, tourism, and exactly who runs the city.

The strength of the backlash might seem surprising. The IOC says it chose the partnership because it would make the Olympics “more feasible and sustainable.” Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, meanwhile, pointed out that the company’s participation would “reduce the cost for the Olympic Games organizers and all the stakeholders...[and] minimize the need for (new) construction” by unlocking the potential of existing homes for short-term lets.

This argument won’t wash with Mayor Hidalgo, however, who has already written to IOC President Thomas Bach to “alert him to the risks and consequences” of choosing Airbnb as a sponsor, reports Le Monde. Her letter states:

Airbnb is a factor in the increase in rental prices and the worsening of the rental housing shortage, penalizing all Parisians and in particular the middle classes…The consequences are sometimes measured at the scale of [entire] buildings and streets—in cases when whole neighborhoods aren’t affected, generating nuisance for residents, destabilizing local trade and competing hard with the traditional hotel industry.

The scale of Airbnb’s presence in Paris has also been criticized by local housing activists Droit au Logement (“Right to Housing”), which estimates that among Paris’ 60,000 Airbnb listings, over 85 percent are for entire apartments. While apartments are not supposed to be rented on the site for more than 120 nights per year, the association says that only 50 percent of listings have the city registration number that would make monitoring this possible.

Meanwhile, in a phenomenon that might reflect correlation rather than causation, rents appear to be rising faster in areas with especially high concentrations of listings. Rental housing is not the only area of real estate where concerns are being raised. Among the city’s political class, there’s a new buzz-phrase for this: the double effet Amazon-Airbnb (or “Amazon-Airbnb effect”), in which retailers killed off by online shopping are transformed into vacation properties.

Despite having all this disruptive activity ascribed to it, Airbnb looks set to pay no more than €150,000 in French taxes for 2018. This is especially frustrating for French hoteliers, whose businesses surrender a far greater proportion of their revenue to taxes.

The city has not been inactive in trying to turn this situation around, and Paris already levies fines against Airbnb hosts who break local rules. With a maximum fine of €50,000 permissible for landlords who rent homes for more than 120 days, the city convicted 150 rule-breaking hosts last year. If Hidalgo is re-elected (and current polls suggest she will be), the referendum she proposed looks set to tighten this further. Implementing it should prove interesting: Allowing Parisians to “define the right conditions of use for Airbnb,” it would collate all votes into a single result, but allow residents to make neighborhood-level decisions on how they want Airbnb to operate in their immediate backyard.  

This admittedly sounds a bit fiddly, and could lead to a mosaic of different conditions from street to street that could be very hard to police, or just stay abreast of. On the positive side, however, it would mean residents vote only on conditions that directly affect them. This would prevent people in areas unpopular with visitors from approving pro-Airbnb policies that would not affect them directly. It could also give out-of-the-way parts of Paris a way to attract more tourists: They might approve more home-sharing-friendly local bylaws rejected elsewhere in the city. The choices that would be on the ballot, and the exact units of space that each micro-ballot would cover, however, have not yet been detailed.

Should this vote go ahead, it would not guarantee tighter conditions for Airbnb in Paris. Still, seeing the company assume such a prominent sponsorship role for the 2024 Games complicates efforts by local leaders to rein in a business they see as damaging to the city’s livability. The Olympics could give Airbnb an unprecedented platform to promote itself in Paris—but it may also attract new scrutiny and resentment from Parisians who seem increasingly fed up with its effects.

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