The airification of cities. Making sense of the impact of peer to peer short term letting on urban functions and economy

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The emerging sharing economy is an extremely interesting phenomenon in the context of major cities, impacting them on several dimensions, ranging from social to economic, from cultural to environmental. “The sharing economy is an emerging economic-technological phenomenon that is fueled by developments in information and communications technology (ICT), growing consumer awareness, proliferation of collaborative web communities as well as social commerce/sharing” (Botsman & Rogers, 2010), (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010), (Wang & Zhang, 2012), (Hamari et al., 2015). The concept of sharing economy is very simple: it allows to rent out anything that is under-utilized or not used at all. The contact between supplier and customer is established through an online platform. Sharing economy platforms, in the last few years, have become very popular and changed our consumption patterns (Quattrone et al., 2016). On the one side, suppliers can short-term rent their goods (or services); on the other side, consumers can rent goods or services at a lower cost than a traditional provider (Zervas and Proserpio, 2014). Airbnb, a peer-to-peer accommodation website, is one of the most successful sharing economy platforms. Airbnb is a platform where people can offer for short term, discover and book houses all over the world, from a pc or smartphones and tablets. The company was founded in 2008 and by now (May 2017) it lists over 3 million properties in over 191 countries, over 65.000 cities, accommodating 150 millions of guests. Spaces rented on Airbnb vary from a couch in someone’s living room to an entire island (Wortham, 2011), but generally there are few typologies of accommodation: private or shared room and entire houses. The host may live in the property at the time of the rental or not. Airbnb claims that 57% of listings are entire apartments or homes, 41% are private rooms and 2% are shared rooms (Guttentag, 2015). Airbnb has been adopted on a massive scale worldwide and also in Italy: in 2015 the country had the third largest number of Airbnb listings in the world, with 83.000 hosts and 3.6 millions of visits per year, according to data published by Airbnb Italia. A press event in Rome (2016) saw the participation of the Italian minister of Culture who spoke with great enthusiasm of the affordances of the platform and the great benefits that it supposedly brings to urban economy. Nevertheless, in typical Italian fashion, there has been very little debate over the long term consequences of a relatively new phenomenon, especially one associated with novelty, enterpreneurialism and “new” technologies, and the only intervention that the government has deemed necessary has been that of imposing a tax on homes rented through the platform. However questions about the impact of an upsurge of short term rentals (‘STR’ onwards) over the delicate environment of Italian historical urban centres, as an example, have hardly been asked. Italians also seem to be ignoring the controversy that Airbnb’s fast rise has generated around the world, with accusations of driving up rents, depleting the residential housing market and, as is the case in Barcelona, turning entire neighbourhoods into 24h party zones, to the bewilderment of residents. Currently, in Florence and Venice just like in Barcelona, the risk to turn the historic centres into “cathedrals of consumption” where what had been grown naturally is replaced with a superficial and tourist-oriented veneer (Thani and Heenan, 2016) – is a very present one. The consequence of this process might be, at best, the loss of authenticity of such places (Zukin, 2009). In this context, the present contribution provides a more in-depth insight on the mechanics of Airbnb in Italy, focusing on two dimensions of the phenomenon, related to (1) the spatial distribution of STRs; (2) the economic impact of Airbnb on city centres and residential rents. After a brief recollection of the academic production on Airbnb (section 2), we describe our data and method of analysis (section 3); in Section 4 we present the spatial patterns of Airbnb supply and demand across 13 towns and cities in Italy, focusing on three archetypical patterns; we then hypothesize on the possible drivers of the Airbnb offer and suggest a possible way to assess whether Airbnb supply could be driven by an economic advantage of STR over long term letting (Section 5). In Section 6 we discuss the way the benefits of the sharing economy are… shared. Finally, we conclude by presenting a possible alternative way of regulating Airbnb.
Book of proceedings: Annual AESOP Congress, Spaces of Dialog for Places of Dignity, Lisbon, 11-14th July, 2017
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