(cross-posted from cnu.org, with some modifications)
The public benefits of Airbnb (a website allowing people to rent out rooms in their houses and apartments) seem fairly obvious to me. Visitors and new movers can pay less for their lodging by renting a room in someone’s apartment than by renting a hotel room, thus enabling longer trips, thus enabling city economies to benefit from more tourism. So it might appear that Airbnb might make housing more affordable, at least for visitors and movers.
But the hotel lobby and a variety of other opponents have sought to shut down Airbnb, especially in high-cost cities like New York and San Francisco where it competes most effectively with hotels.
For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (whose is in the hotel business)* has written an op-ed arguing that Airbnb allows landlords to “vacate their units and rent them out to hotel users, further increasing the cost of living.”
In other words, Airnbnb opponents see lodging as a zero-sum game: what benefits visitors must harm existing renters. By this logic, govenrment should just outlaw hotels, since every hotel unit is a potential apartment.
More seriously, the zero-sum argument assumes that every room rented to a visitor would otherwise be rented to a roommate. But the two “products” are not reasonably interchangeable; roommates involve advantages (such as familiarity and a regular rent check every month) and disadvantages (such as a 365-day relationship) that differ from those of Airbnb “temporary roommates.”**
Moreover, the supply of Airbnb rooms is actually pretty limited; for example, I just searched for Airbnb rooms in San Francisco renting for under $100 (and thus cheaper than most private hotels) and found a grand total of 486 rooms (not counting entire apartments, which compete more with ordinary landlords than with hotels). When I searched for rooms cheaper than the cheapest hotel on hotels.com, I found only 74 rentals- hardly enough to affect housing prices. In less expensive cities, Airbnb is even less popular and thus even less likely to affect housing supply; for example, in Houston, I found only 139 rentals for less than $100.
Feinstein argues that renters should at least be kept out of single-family neighborhoods, because temporary renters would create “a blanket commercialization of our neighborhoods. ” This argument makes no sense to me; renting a room in a house for a night is no more “commercial” than renting the whole house for a year. In both situations, someone is paying for lodging.
*In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I am an occasional Airbnb customer and thus have a small financial interest in this issue myself).
**I realize that this argument is slightly less absurd when the Airbnb host is renting out an entire house or apartment, since this “product” is more similar to a traditional tenancy.