I’m going to an event in New York this June and I was thinking about using Airbnb. But then I saw this article.
As many as 7,500 San Francisco housing units are kept off of the rental market and are instead set aside for users of Airbnb and services like VRBO.com, KALW reported.
Activists with the San Francisco Tenants Union identified 1937 Mason Street, a three-unit building, as apartment housing set aside entirely for vacation rentals, the radio station reported. To make matters worse, the former renters there were ousted with the Ellis Act
The Ellis Act allows San Francisco landlords to “go out of business” and kick everybody in the building out. Sometimes the units become condos. Sometimes the landlord kicks everybody out to make room for Airbnb.
7,500 units is only about 2% of the 376,942 total San Francisco housing units counted in the last census. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot. But when you look at it in the context of the massive displacement in the Bay Area, the situation becomes clearer. Colorlines reported that
Between 1990 and 2011, median rental housing prices in San Francisco neighborhoods in the late stages of gentrification increased 40 percent. What’s more, the rental price increases and housing crisis have fueled the displacement of blacks and Latinos from both cities.
Between 1990 and 2011 the proportion of black residents in all Oakland neighborhoods fell by nearly 40 percent. Perhaps more stunning, black homeowners were about half of north Oakland’s homeowners in 1990. By 2011 they were just 25 percent of the neighborhood’s homeowners.
Washington DC, where I live, has been getting whiter, more expensive, and more unequal as well. We have “the fourth-highest gap between richest and poorest residents of large U.S. cities. While the poorest 20 percent of D.C. residents make on average under $10,000 per year, the top five percent make over $530,000 per year.” This income inequality is playing out in the housing market in a huge way.
According to the most recent data compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in DC is $1,412 a month, the second highest in the nation. To afford rent in DC without spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a renter would need to earn $27.15 an hour, over three times DC’s $8.25 hourly minimum wage. In other words, a minimum wage earner would need to work 132 hours a week to pay rent in the district. Since 2000, DC has demolished at least nine public housing properties, which coincides with the city losing more than half its low-cost housing units in the past decade. Meanwhile, DC’s homeless population has quadrupled since 2008.
So I started thinking about who exactly is benefiting from Airbnb in my town.
Best I can tell, of all the profiles I randomly clicked, not one of them seemed to be from this city. Only one of them might not be white. It seems likely that they own their properties, especially that real estate agent. They travel all over the world. They surely make way more than $10,000 per year. And they live in neighborhoods that are newly infested with bougie bars and luxury condo projects with slogans like “meet you at the top.”
I’m not putting those profiles up so that you can hate on those people. The truth is that they aren’t all that different from me. I am not from DC. I have a college degree. I’ve been able to travel some. I work for the anti-poverty wing of the non-profit industrial complex in an office full of people who aren’t from this city and have never been poor in their lives, people who look a lot like those profiles. If I had decided to climb the ladder or if my parents had a little money, I’d probably be them.
I talk about privilege blindness a lot and this is one of those moments when my own smacks me in the face. It never occurred to me to think about who Airbnb was marketing to, how much privilege is required to participate, or how it is contributing to the disasters that are happening in cities all over the country. In fact, I thought it was a great thing to avoid staying at the big evil chain hotels. But if the Best Western is hiring locals at union wages and your Airbnb is run by a landlord who kicked out a bunch of residents to make more money, that chain hotel starts to look a lot better.
We cannot end oppression with consumer choice. Some decisions may cause a little less suffering than others and that is reason enough to try to make ethical life choices. But the system is designed for the benefit of a few people and most of those people will probably not even see the havoc they are causing. They will, in fact, think they are doing something great.
Check out this letter from Airbnb’s cofounder and CEO. Do you think when he tells his employees not to “fuck up the culture” he is referring to the culture of those people who are getting pushed out of DC/San Francisco/New York to make room for the young white professionals who like to rent out their $300,000 condos for extra cash when they travel around the world?
When those of us who have the privilege of choices think about making those choices ethical, we need to realize that we are going to be blind to many (maybe most) of the effects of our actions. We need to realize that having the space to think about the ethics is a privilege. Maybe, if we shut up and pay very close attention to the most marginalized people, we can start to see how much the world is designed for people like us at others expense. Maybe we will all learn that the most ethical travel decision would be to decide to do it a lot less and to spend that time and money in our communities working toward smashing the systems that make ethical choices impossible.
I needed a reminder. Maybe some of you all did too.