An Open Letter to Airbnb
The pitchforks are coming
Dear founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk, board members Angela Ahrendts, Ken Chenault, Belinda Johnson, Jeff Jordan, Alfred Lin, and Ann Mather, and all investors, hosts, and guests;
I write to you today in the hope that you will radically re-structure your company before it starts a class war in which you will almost certainly lose the lion's share of your wealth, your moral conscience, your place in history as innovators instead of oppressors, and you and your family’s physical safety.
Brian, Joe, Nathan; you started Airbnb with the best of intentions. You couldn’t afford to make rent on your San Francisco apartment, so you bought some air mattresses and served breakfast to your guests. Brilliant.
But things of changed since then. Now you control an $80 billion company that has devoured millions of housing units, evicted countless families, and turned their homes into full-time clerkless hotels, with a promise in your IPO documents to fight democracies in court for as long as you can afford to do so.
To be clear, renting out spare rooms, attics, basements, and backyards in owner-occupied properties isn’t the problem. It’s when an investor outbids a family for a second property and turns it into a full-time Airbnb. Or worse, when a holiday rental company does so. Or worse, when a highly-leveraged hedge fund buys a swath of holiday rental companies. Or worse, when a sovereign wealth fund buys a portfolio of hedge funds. It’s why the average house will cost $10+ million within 50 years.
Picture the future and do the math. Your company’s mandate is to grow exponentially forever. If new housing construction doesn’t keep up — and it hasn’t for more than a decade — it’s mathematically impossible that your company won’t take hundreds of millions of houses away from real families in the decades ahead. Do you think this will end well for you?
As it stands, you have set your company on a path that can only lead to ruin — for millions of houseless families, and eventually, your leadership team and your investors.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
1. Start with transparency
As far as we’re aware, only 8% of Airbnb hosts are renting a room in a single house, and that number is falling fast. How many million houses has Airbnb taken off the market so far, and how many more are being stolen each month?
It’s only fair that the commons knows what we're up against. If you want to build real public trust, your company needs to allow independent auditors to track how many of your hosts are actually owners who rent rooms in houses they occupy full-time, versus how many investors have taken a housing unit off the market and turned it into an unregulated clerkless hotel.
2. Ensure all your hosts are owner-occupiers only
You must revert to your original model. When an owner occupies a house, they take care of it. They know their neighbors. They keep the noise down. They shop locally. They keep the local schools open by sending their kids. They set down roots.
Absentee landlords kill communities. They don’t have roots. They don’t care about noise or safety or cleanliness. They don’t care about schools. They don’t care about neighbors. All they care about is extracting wealth.
Worst of all, the huge proliferation of holiday investors is skyrocketing house prices beyond all affordable values. This means that the real societal contributors — productive workers — have to relocate to less desirable locations further away from their places of work. This is already robbing millions of people of billions of hours of life due to extra commuting, and the environmental toll of all that pollution is yours to bear.
All of this could be ameliorated by ensuring that every single one of your hosts is only renting out space in a housing unit that they own and live in full-time.
3. Limit the number of rental nights to 14/year
Obviously, high year-round commercial availability removes a house from the residential market. The average American gets two weeks of vacation per year. As such, it seems reasonable to limit the number of rental nights to the number of vacation days of the average owner-occupier. Many cities have already started to put such a limit in place, but if your company truly cares about the commons, you’ll pre-empt them all by ensuring your hosts are good citizens first, and hosts seconds.
In a word, there must be no more full-time Airbnbs in residential homes.
4. Stop suing democracies
I realize that part of your business plan includes building a war chest to fight 100,000+ cities in court. But is this really how you want to make your money? By fighting democracy? How will your children and grandchildren look at you when they learn the truth of your actions? Is this how you want history to remember you?
Airbnb’s fight-the-public-forever model is going to cost you a ton of money, and it’s going to cost the commons even more. But do you expect us to just roll over and die? When millions of us don’t have a place to live, what will you expect us to do instead?
5. Stop bribing Congress
Let’s face it, the rest of the world calls corporate lobbying what it actually is: bribing. Why do you have 13 lobbying firms in Congress? Why did you hire a PR firm to meet with Scottish delegates on 28 occasions? Why did you fund more than 400 fake grassroots organizations?
Instead of bribing corporate-captured puppet politicians to make laws that oppress the commons, why not build a company that doesn’t require the overthrow of democracy instead?
6. Start building clerkless hotels
Clearly, there is a huge market for your business.
People don’t love the hassle of hotel check-ins and check-outs.
They like paying online.
They like having kitchens.
They like having unique and interesting spaces.
If you build it, they will come.
Seriously — as more people start to travel regularly, there’s likely a market for more than a billion Airbnb hotel units globally. Airbnb could earn (actually earn) a real profit by revolutionizing the hotel industry.
You’ve been bleeding investor cash for nearly a decade, so why not make a profit for a change?
7. Start an Airbnbank
Now, of course, the sheer brilliance of extraction economy companies is that you take a massive cut of the profits without shouldering any of the risks and costs, shunting all those pesky expenses onto the backs of your army of hosts.
So why not continue to pass the buck by giving your hosts an opportunity to invest in full-time commercially-zoned vacation space?
Start a bank, give hosts mortgages, and allow them to buy units in Airbnb towers in properly zoned commercial areas. This would allow hosts to skim passive profits off tourists, allow you to make your hefty Airbnb fee, and earn interest like a fat cat Wall Street banker.
You could also control maintenance and cleaning and security on these buildings, extracting further fees from your hosts. You could also rent ground-level space to restaurants, fitness centers, food shops, pubs, barbershops, and spas. Heck, you could even save a few floors for office share space and destroy WeWork for good. Best of all, you’d never have to take another residential unit away from a family ever again.
Because even one house taken off the residential market to be used as a holiday house is one too many.
Like it or not, your company is now the tip of the spear in a movement that is rapidly commodifying global residential real estate. You’re leading the charge in turning a human necessity into a tradeable commodity. Access to affordable shelter is a universal human right, and you’re devastating real people.
A word of warning
Now obviously, your full-time job is simply to boost Airbnb’s stock price, so I don’t expect you’ll heed any of these suggestions; in which case, all that’s left to say is: Enjoy it while it lasts. Because they're coming for you, and when they do, there will be blood. You thought Occupy Wall Street had a big turnout? Wait until hundreds of millions of evicted renters smash your empire. Rule number one of business: Never back desperate people into a corner. Pretty soon, the listings on your website will just become a hit list.
Expect thousands of municipal lawsuits from city councils.
Expect class-action lawsuits from evicted renters and priced-out buyers.
Expect pitchforks in the streets.
Expect bricks through windows and fires in listed properties.
Expect homeless mobs climbing the walls of your gated mansions.
If you continue on your current course, you will pay reparations one way or the other — so either get a good insurance policy or get back to your original business model so the world may call you blessed.
A personal note
My wife and I are having our first baby in late September. Our house lease expires in March, and our landlord is turning our home into an Airbnb. There isn’t a single house to rent at any price within a half-hour drive. We have to leave the village we’ve come to love these past few years. We want to raise our child in a real home, but let’s be honest — our landlords will extract way more money by renting our house out nightly instead of monthly.
Our whole village is the same way. Nearly every property that comes up for sale is snapped up in days by a holiday rental company for far more money than any local family can afford to pay. If the trajectory continues — and there’s no indication that it won’t — there’s a good chance our local school will close before our child has a chance to attend.
I can’t describe to you the sinking feeling I get in my stomach every time a sixty-year-old suburban woman stops in front of our place and says to her husband, “oh, that one would be cute,” or worse, when a holiday rental company van pulls up and snaps a photo of our home.
There’s a ticking clock that hangs over our heads, counting down the days until we’ll inevitably have to move to a less desirable location, into likely a much smaller place, and still pay way more money, thanks to the commodification of real estate in the hands of Airbnb land-lorders.
Calls to action
There is much to be done in this world, and much of it is an undoing.
Airbnb investors and board members: For the sake of long-term societal safety and short-term societal affordability, I call on you to divest of Airbnb stock in the same way you would of fossil fuels and weapons of war, or at the very least, become activist members that force the board to abandon its non-owner-occupied position.
Airbnb hosts: I encourage you to only rent out rooms or units on your primary residential property, and sell any properties that you have stolen from the commons.
Airbnb guests: I encourage you to stay in hotels, resorts, regulated bed and breakfasts, and in real commercially-zoned vacation rental properties, not in residential neighborhoods. If you want to use Airbnb in an ethical manner, do your due diligence to ensure that the property you’re renting is a bona fide owner-occupied unit and not a unit that has been taken away from a family. It’s deeply troubling to enjoy family vacation time in a space when you know another family has lost theirs — it’s time to make the Golden Rule popular again.
Citizens: Lobby your city councilors, county clerks, state representatives, and Congresspeople to ban all commercial activity and investment in residential real estate. Whether they include a 500% second house premium, a cost-prohibitive landlording license, or an outright ban on non-owner-occupied clerkless hotel rentals, we simply must drive investors out of the residential real estate market.
Please spread the word and raise awareness about Airbnb.
Brian, Joe, Nathan: You started Airbnb with the best of intentions. You couldn’t afford to make rent on your San Francisco apartment. Today, your company has made it nearly impossible for people like your former selves to live in San Francisco, Paris, New York, London, or nearly any other desirable place on earth, including my little village.
Houses are supposed to be homes. You’ve extended the capitalist script by turning houses into abusive investments, extractive commodities to be sold to the highest bidder. Please go back to your roots before society burns your whole empire to the ground.