Airbnb fuels gentrification and the housing crisis in New York City
Affordable housing in New York City is a familiar issue that resonates with most Native people, myself included. A study released in April found that nearly 80 percent of New Yorkers living below the true cost of living are considered housing burdened, or contribute more than 30 percent of their income toward housing, which not only generates a risk of homelessness but also stresses the community. – Ability to afford basic necessities such as food and health care. Empirically, this crisis has disproportionately affected residents of color, especially in new, “trendy,” or aristocratic areas like Bushwick and the Lower East Side.
This does not mean that there is a real housing shortage, even for low-income residents. In fact, more than 13,000 rental units in New York City have sat vacant for years. Even more shocking, the city boasted more Airbnb listings than apartments for rent as of April — 20,397 versus 7,669 units, respectively. Beyond gentrification and inflation, Airbnb has become a silent but major force in the housing market since its inception in 2008, with short-term rentals becoming more profitable than long-term rentals. Its profitability is despite the fact that available units can remain empty for any given number of days in a month.
On September 5, New York City officials began enforcing Local Law 18, which strictly regulates short-term rentals. However, given how prolific Airbnb is, it would likely amount to an actual ban. Short-term rental hosts now need to register with the sheriff’s office for special enforcement and can face fines of up to $5,000 for violating this rule, in addition to previous laws requiring hosts to be on the property during a stay. Meanwhile, booking sites like Airbnb and Vrbo are responsible for verifying a host’s registration status in order to charge a stay. The law has already caused thousands of Airbnb listings to be deactivated. As of August 28, only 257 registration applications out of 3,250 had been approved, although the criteria remained unclear.
While it’s too early to tell whether this Airbnb ban will effectively address the city’s housing affordability crisis, it is a step in the right direction, specifically in reducing gentrification and displacement. Airbnb is not only a nimble technology that embraces the entrepreneurial and slumlord spirit of late capitalism, nor is it “short-term” in the same way that most bookings are. Instead, Airbnb is culturally mediated, operating through the intersection of social relations and public space, and these short-term rentals ultimately add up to long-term neighborhood, community, and cultural impact. After all, the real economic opportunities for Airbnb hosts lie in the hottest neighborhoods with the best brunch spots, coffee shops, and of course, Trader Joe’s. Think of the unwelcoming Whole Foods on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem — “Goodbye Black Harlem, glad I knew you.” Angela Helm of The Root wrote, “Hey, Whole Foods, I enjoy your products, but if you can make vegetables better, what chance do we really have?”
But it’s also no surprise that people flock to Jackson Heights for the great food or that videos of Bed-Stuy parties go viral on the Internet. People romanticize and cherish New York City for its culture, and Airbnbs have benefited from the displacement and appropriation of cultural attributes. McGill University’s School of Urban Planning found that “nearly three-quarters of residents in neighborhoods most at risk of Airbnb-induced gentrification across New York are non-white.” Meanwhile, across 72 majority-Black neighborhoods in New York City surveyed in a study by Inside Airbnb, 74 percent of the Airbnb host population were white, compared to about 14 percent of the white resident population. This discrepancy reflects what we already knew about Airbnbs, which is that many hosts dedicate their properties entirely to short-term rentals, and don’t actually live in them. It suggests a naïve form of cultural tourism as well as a willingness to jeopardize affordability and the health of a neighborhood for profit. It also debunks the misconception that increased Airbnb use in a neighborhood will generate wealth for long-term residents and people of color.
But what came first? Gentrification or Airbnb tourism? It’s practically impossible to say with certainty, although there is a high correlation between Airbnb use in majority-Black neighborhoods and threats to affordable housing. For example, Crown Heights North ranks seventh in terms of Airbnb usage in all of New York City, and has seen a 54 percent increase in its white population from 2010 to 2014. The 2018 controversy over steel bands reveals that A tradition introduced by Caribbean immigrants, the changing cultural landscape that relates to this changing demographic. Band practices were constantly interrupted by police called by new residents who were unfamiliar with the tradition. As Tom Slee puts it, the sharing economy, including Airbnbs, “is extending a tough, deregulated free market into previously protected areas of our lives.” Not only can a few individuals make fortunes by indirectly displacing an entire neighborhood, but the sharing economy also commodifies everyday life. It should change the way we think about work, housing as a right, public space and its social and economic impacts.
Some cities, such as Toronto, have also enacted restrictions on Airbnb, which could be a useful case study for housing affordability initiatives over time. However, when it comes to gentrification, the New York City market has a unique cultural primacy and differentiation, which also points to vulnerability. Local Law 18 may or may not ease housing demand in New York City, but displacement in areas at risk of gentrification is a worthwhile start to correcting the Airbnb turmoil so far, and it would be a mistake to distrust the law so quickly. Reducing gentrification requires an entire village – proper education, cultural sensitivity, material investments, and Local Code 18 and its proper enforcement are needed. I believe New York City’s culture can still be saved, and in this strange space between residential housing and hotel accommodations recently occupied by Airbnbs, I see the rebirth of our neighborhoods.
Julie Ha is a junior majoring in English.