This summer I have enjoyed a variation of Through the Keyhole, the British television game show in which contestants try to guess the identity of a famous homeowner by looking at their belongings. So I have been poking around strangers’ bookshelves and spice racks, opening cupboards of barely touched exotic liquors gathering dust, piecing together the personal and professional lives of the residents. Is Corporate Finance for Dummies the bedtime reading of a young banker or of a hobbyist hoping to sprinkle dinner-party conversation with jargon? Is a bottle of Mekhong whisky a sign of desperation or a souvenir from a holiday in Koh Tao?
This nosiness has been facilitated by Airbnb, the property-sharing app. While builders have been attacking my own home, I have been renting flats in my neighbourhood for a few days at a time between housesitting friends’ flats.
The experience has on the whole been a good one, although I was not too impressed when a host cancelled the day before we were due to turn up. But a cursory read of the “uncensored stories from hosts and guests” on website Airbnbhell — “Unstable Host and Airbnb Turned my Vacation into Hell”, “Traumatic Airbnb Experience in Philadelphia”, “Not My Blood on that Airbnb Host’s Duvet” — shows that others are not so lucky.
Our hosts have proved to be incredibly conscientious. One even dissuaded me from booking her property because she worried that building work next door would spoil our stay. Another kept sending messages to check that we were happy.
And seeing your neighbourhood from a slightly different vantage point is refreshing. In the routine of work and family life, it is all too easy to tread the same path and stick to the familiar. When your starting position is even just a few streets away, you are forced to observe the environment, discover new parks and cafés.
Yet the experience has also widened the generational chasm when it comes to property. I am lucky, as a member of Generation X, to own my flat. When I stepped on to the property ladder, my then partner and I paid three times our joint salary. When I sold the property, 12 years later, it was worth almost six times our — increased — earnings. This was the result of luck not skill: we simply benefited from London’s rising house prices.
For many of my homeowning peers, Airbnb has proved to be a buffer for insecure incomes. Some supplement their salaries by renting their own properties out while they are on holiday or letting a bedroom if one of the children is away. One who is suffering a drought in work has taken to visiting friends all over the country while she Airbnbs her flat. While not ecstatic about packing her bags every weekend, she is keenly aware that she is lucky to have a hard-working property when she is underemployed.
Another couple credit the website with facilitating their divorce. Were it not for the extra revenue from hosting tourists, they would have been unable to afford to split up and go their own ways.
Yet not only is Airbnb reinforcing the divide between property haves and have-nots, it may also be exacerbating rental market problems. Browsing the site, it is obvious that many of the hosts are professional landlords.
The Residential Landlords Association is concerned that private landlords are taking flats and houses off the rental market in the hope that they will make more money through holiday lets. One property owner in Leeds was reported as trebling his income after making the switch.
It is a trend worrying landlords and renters alike. Hannah Williams, founder of Rental Raters, which helps British renters share information about landlords and properties, says: “Good properties go on Airbnb and are withdrawn from the rental market, leaving less quality available.”
It is not just in London. In San Francisco, for example, campaigners distributed posters campaigning against Airbnb landlords “destroying affordable housing for immigrant, minority, and low income families”.
Being a local tourist has been invigorating, opening my eyes to parts of the city I have overlooked. It has also made me acutely aware of my own luck — and fearful for my children’s future.
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