Exchange of social capital: Left: Anya-Milana Sulaver, AirBNB host; Right: Carla Valente, AirBNB guest

My share of the sharing economy

Our cultural analyst and forum editor at Peeps reflects on her lived experience as part of the new Web 2.0-based sharing economy.

In 2007 two design students in San Francisco, concerned over making rent each month, decided to offer airbeds in their living room from $25 a night to visiting students at a conference. As of 2011, Airbnb, the sharing website that is the outgrowth of the financial ingenuity of Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia (with the addition of Nathan Blecharczyk in 2008) is providing an unexpected and valuable source of income for thousands of people around the world. Allowing users to offer up anything from a couch for a night to a luxurious and unique home, people in my market (Toronto) are opening their doors to travellers for fees from as little as $25 per night and as much as $2550. The high end of this spectrum is a sexy calling card to potential Airbnb users, but the low end of the spectrum is proving best served by the service. It’s not the first site to try to find ways to connect travelers with cheap and safe digs. Using an Ebay like rating system ensuring mutual accountability from the host and the guest, it is the first site to offer this service and allow hosts to charge a fee. The result has been a growing community of Airbnbers worldwide who are able to make their spare bedrooms sources of significant additional revenue. In cities like New York and Toronto, where rents are astronomical and well-paying jobs can be scarce, it offers folks a way to turn their homes into a second job that can cover their rent and basic expenses for the month.

July 1, 2014 was a financial deadline for me. Having completed my MA the previous October, I was still looking for work in a soft job market and would be short of rent for the first time since my early twenties. My roommate, a fellow grad student, was finishing up her work in Toronto and moving back to the States. She offered up the story of a friend of hers who was airbnbing (yes, it is now becoming a verb). My roommate’s friend was renting the second bedroom in her apartment in Washington and not just covering rent, but making a profit. I ran the numbers and found that, by airbnbing, in a good month I could make double or even triple what I would take in from having a roommate. I posted pics from the second bedroom and within 2 weeks of that I was hosting my first guest. My renters have largely been well-educated young professionals and students looking for a place to stay while doing work or studies that would otherwise have been impossible without the cheap and safe options offered them by Airbnb. Each guest has brought a wealth of experience, grace and kindness to my home.

I am, admittedly, pretty well-acquainted with my inner hippie, so I am always hopeful that people will find convivial alternatives to brash capitalist consumerism. There is a fine line in assessing the sharing economy as a whole that anthropologists are generally anxious about observing, though, between the sharing economy as social lubricant and source of new and exciting social resources versus the “sharing” economy as the ever more aggressive commodification of property.

That Airbnb has monetized the model originally offered by Couchsurfers, where membership and listings are free, attracts more hosts and allows hosts some immediate reciprocal benefit by charging their guests. But the very act of changing a benevolent act to a paid service or form of labour, while speeding up reciprocity from “I got you this trip, you get me when I come to your city” to “Here’s a room in my home for 50 bucks for the night” does have the potential to turn Social Capital into its cynical cousin Exploitation (Uber’s price gouging policies offer proof enough of this). Airbnb’s mechanism of mutual accountability helps shape how the experience is framed. How hosts choose to perform their role from the point of booking on will determine their rating and how much they are recommended to other travelers on the site. How a traveler treats the host and the host’s property or home will do the same for their access to other good hosts. The question is whether or not traveler culture and etiquette, which has been honed over the centuries, will continue to be observed or whether hosts and guests will reduce the process to a form of commodity exchange.

Sharing Economy

I’ve found, without fail, that the people who have been attracted to staying in my home have shared my values and had a lot in common with me, despite differences of geography and language. I am a seasoned traveler, though, and familiar with the cataclysmic effects of misunderstanding house rules and mistreating a relationship with a host. My guests and I have both understood the complexities of negotiating the host/guest relationship and have treated them with respect. But this is far less exciting than the odd orgy or brothel that gets mentioned in the furious rants against Airbnb and that are becoming more common in the media: most recently a blog in Huffpost.ca.

As the Huffpost blog illustrates, the effects on social capital don’t begin and end with relationships between guests and hosts. Fellow tenants and landlords have been some of the biggest critics of the site, citing security issues, sometimes working collectively to evict tenants airbnbing their spaces. I’m a renter and try to live transparently with the folks affected by how I operate in my apartment. I asked my landlord before I posted my ad if he had concerns with how I was using the space and I’ve kept him abreast both of my occupancy rates and the amount I’m making on the room. He leaves it to me to assess the credibility of the guests and so far my fellow tenants have been really kind and welcoming to my guests.

There is another reality about my guests. Each of them has come for some reason related to their profession. Whether my apartment is part of a stable of rooms for a businessperson who comes into the city from other parts of the province for one night a week, or I have a guest from Europe doing an internship with an organization here for 5 weeks or longer, my guests are looking very specifically for a low-maintenance, low-cost location that can substitute for home. They need a bed, a place to work (my living room), a bathroom and a full working kitchen. Because they know that the comfort they experience is a product of my life and work, they treat my home very respectfully. What I offer not many people could afford if it were to be offered by a hotel. But by sharing my system of support for my own life and profession, I’m affording some people opportunities of their own. Airbnb’s recent examination of how Airbnb is working in the Berlin presents a similar picture.

From my own experience and perspective, Airbnb’s bread and butter is based on serving the traveler who can only afford to pay between $25 and $100 for as little as a couch or as much as a multiple person dwelling that affords them access to a stove, a fridge and a bathroom while relying on a host who is accountable to them as a traveler.

Linda, a medical student from Calgary, came to Toronto to do two separate clerkships back to back at two different hospitals. The first clerkship was at Sunnybrook, in a notoriously difficult area of town to find a hotel or room share. Airbnb offered a few more choices a bit closer to the hospital but the real appeal in the end was the cost: “It was very difficult to find rental listings for such a short period of time, and my budget precluded staying in a hotel. I had very simple needs: a safe and affordable accommodation relatively close to work, and Airbnb turned out to be a great solution.”

Germans Elizabeth Okay and her partner Walter were considering a year of work with his firm in North America, which has offices in every major city: “We wanted to travel on a middle budget and not just to stay in a hotel privately. We wanted to share and also meet other people their way of living and their culture. It was a short inside view in a life and a country.”

Finally, Christopher Smith, a PhD student at OISE, made the point most clearly “My work, to be good, requires original research. Traveling to work in museums and archives that have materials I otherwise couldn’t use in my research is expensive. Airbnb did more than just put a roof over my head at a price I could pay, it also made my research possible. It’s the grad students using this resource in the Academy. Tenured profs stay in hotels.”

Though Airbnb’s growth has been rapid and far reaching, with only 15 million room nights booked worldwide in 2012 versus the US hotel industry’s 1 billion room nights in the same year, it still only represents a small portion of the travel accommodation market. Airbnb studies suggest that the Airbnb user in most cases simply wouldn’t travel at all if it weren’t for the willingness of hosts to open their doors. That observation has held true through conversations with my own guests. Airbnb’s success with this segment of the market comes from the financial ease it offers first to hosts, then to guests.

In the meantime, now that work has sorted itself out, the call of Airbnb continues. The additional $1100 per month in income pays most of my rent and requires comparatively little from me other than keeping my house clean and my cell phone handy for reservation requests or to help guests out when they’re lost. My partner, whom I met after starting with Airbnb, was skeptical at first, but now he’s the first person to wield a broom or take one of our guests for a late night dinner. So, while the fate of Airbnb and the sharing economy as agents of a better and less cynical world are to be proven, the way they get practiced in my home have come to please both my landlord and my inner hippie.

By Anya-Milana Sulaver, Peeps

Photography by Nation Wong, Peeps
Left: Anya-Milana Sulaver, AirBNB host
Right: Carla Valente, AirBNB guest

Share Tweet about this on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Google+ Google+ Email to someone
TAGS /AirBNB / sharing economy /