by Alexander Weisler (Université de Montréal)
Introduction: Short-Term Backlash
Following a deadly fire in a Montreal heritage building illegally listed on Airbnb, the Canadian province of Quebec joins the growing list of jurisdictions cracking down on short-term rentals (STRs). Leading STR platform Airbnb has been besieged of late, with operations crippled by new regulations in New York City, its most important US market, amidst discussion of cratering revenue for “hosts” who invested heavily during the pandemic. These are only the latest challenges for the Silicon Valley darling, which seemed doomed in the wake of Covid-19 shutdowns, only to triumphantly debut on the stock exchange later in 2020. Last year, in what was dubbed “Airbnbust”, frustrated travellers shared their complaints about the service across social media, decrying deceptive pricing, excessive cleaning fees, and housekeeping tasks demanded by helicopter hosts.
This consumer revolt coincided with a growing awareness of Airbnb’s role in housing shortages and escalating costs. Geographers have long scrutinised the impact of STRs, as seen in numerous contributions to Antipode (including recent entries by Jover and Cocola-Gant 2023; Medvedeva 2023), and it finally became a mainstream concern during the pandemic. This ambient unease with Airbnb even crept into popcorn entertainment, with the STR-themed horror flick Barbarian proving a Halloween sleeper hit. Director Zach Cregger’s creature feature acted as something of a release valve, allowing fed-up travellers to vent at the company, while providing the security of the sensational; your Airbnb host might pester you to wash sheets while charging more than a hotel, but it’s not like they’ll kill you.
The truth is that people do meet tragic ends in Airbnb rentals. A stunning 2021 Bloomberg exposé uncovered a laundry list of horrors faced by Airbnb’s overworked safety team, including shootings and sexual assaults (Carville 2021). Traumatised agents tasked with covering up violent incidents report that the company routinely prioritises PR over the wellbeing of both guests and hosts. Over the past several years, especially since the pandemic disrupted travel patterns, Airbnb has worked to polish their reputation, effectively banning “party houses” associated with gun violence, and removing thousands of hosts for discriminatory behaviour. In response to last year’s backlash, they introduced policies intended to limit cleaning fees and chore lists. However, the company has proven more hesitant to act in other areas. On 30 October 2022 (as Barbarian shot up the streaming charts) three American tourists died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Mexico City Airbnb rental. The tragedy brought attention to Airbnb’s lax safety policies; while the company offers free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to hosts, they merely ask that listings be equipped with them if they have fuel-burning devices. Airbnb doesn’t ask hosts to confirm whether they are equipped with safety features, much less provide proof.
Tragedy in Montreal
In the early hours of 16 March, a five-alarm fire broke out in an apartment building in Old Montreal, the historic centre of Quebec’s largest city. Most of the 14 apartments in the three-storey building were rented through Airbnb, despite city regulations prohibiting STRs in this area. The few remaining long-term residents of the building attest that the landlord routinely forced out tenants to convert apartments into shoddy tourist accommodations. The building lacked fire exits and a working alarm system; an 18-year-old victim reportedly called 911 from a room with no windows. Of the 22 people in the building on the night of the fire, nine were injured and seven perished.
Journalists found that problems with this building and its landlord were known to both the city of Montreal and Airbnb (Kamel 2023). Travellers had raised safety concerns through reviews on the platform and at least one guest wrote directly to the company, which seemingly did not take action and allowed the “host” to re-list the units under a new profile scrubbed of negative reviews. The city, meanwhile, lodged numerous code violations against the landlord between 2008 and 2019 but it’s unclear if any action was taken beyond a few small fines that could be covered by a night or two of Airbnb revenue. A victim’s father has filed a $22 million class-action lawsuit against the landlord, the tenant who acted as the Airbnb “host,” and the company itself.
The Platform Model
Critics of Airbnb and other so-called “sharing economy” platforms are hardly surprised by these devastating events. This tragedy is a natural result of the deregulation and unaccountability driven by Airbnb and more or less condoned by many cities. Counter to their “homesharing” ethos, most of Airbnb’s revenue comes from full-time, professionalised STR listings. As I have previously written, the platform both creates a rent gap (a potential value, as coined by Neil Smith ) and provides the means to exploit it, incentivising landlords to convert long-term apartments into STRs (Wachsmuth and Weisler 2018). According to Inside Airbnb, in April 2023, 83% of the 7,891 listings in Montreal were entire homes or apartments, with many if not most available full time. This means that approximately 6,500 housing units were reserved for tourism as Montreal faced a housing shortage according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (Saint-Arnaud 2023). Furthermore, these aren’t Mom and Pop operations; 72% of hosts have multiple listings, with some hosts offering upwards of 70 separate apartments. A small number of hosts dominate the platform, meaning that most revenue is not generated by people renting out spare rooms, but professional landlords or investors who convert residences to STRs (Combs et al. 2019).
The owner of the Old Montreal property hid behind a web of accountability, outsourcing management of the STRs to leaseholders who acted as “hosts” on the platform. Though he denies knowledge of Airbnb activity, former tenants insist that the owner collaborated with hosts (Kamel 2023). The arrangement was designed to protect the landlord by providing a degree of distance and deniability. This triangulation isn’t aberrant, but inherent to the platform model and reflects how Airbnb itself operates. Airbnb, after all, is not a traditional accommodations provider but an online platform that connects travellers directly with individuals renting out property. However, this purportedly peer-to-peer platform actively produces and obfuscates a more complex infrastructure. The platform model proves a new frontier for market-oriented reform policies, pushing deregulation and further delegating responsibility down to the individual level.
In a recent article, Aleksandra Piletić (2023) challenges representations of platforms like Airbnb as great disruptors, situating them instead within the continuity of neoliberalism and decades-long reworking of work and social reproduction. As detailed by Piletić, platform innovations provide the adaptive means to preserve neoliberal accumulation as a whole. What we see in this landlord’s business model is merely intensified outsourcing. Last year’s Airbnb backlash was partly inspired by hosts’ attempts to outsource housekeeping to guests themselves. Responses to the recent tragedy reflect how other responsibilities are more subtly passed down to consumers, as guests are advised to assess safety features and evacuation routes at their rentals, something that would never be asked of hotel guests. What is presented as common sense is really an unpaid safety inspection for a multibillion-dollar corporation, turning guests into gig workers on their own vacations.
The platform model actively obscures how dangerous the gig economy really is. A 2022 report by Gig Workers Rising estimated that at least 50 ride-hailing or delivery drivers have been killed on the job since 2017 in the US alone. Many incidents can’t be collated due to the disaggregated nature of the platform model. When an overworked Uber driver has an accident it isn’t necessarily reported as work related; most small fires and thefts in Airbnb aren’t publicly reported. It’s difficult to track how unsafe the gig economy is since most incidents don’t occur in traditional workplaces, even as labour increasingly comes to resemble the gig economy for a growing share of workers.
Holding Airbnb Accountable
The flexibility of the platform model helps shield neoliberal accumulation from attempts at regulation; Airbnb has managed to thrive even in jurisdictions with relatively strong rental housing policy, empowering landlords to circumvent unfavourable regulations. In response to the deaths, Quebec introduced legislation requiring STR platforms to remove listings lacking valid registration numbers; violations will incur fines for both the property owner and the company, meaning Airbnb could face fines up to $100,000 per unlicensed listing. This could see the removal of up to two-thirds of listings in Montreal. Quebec is not the first jurisdiction to put the onus of enforcement on Airbnb. Hosts in Berlin, Germany have been required to enter city permit numbers since 2018, a development considered productive by Airbnb critics. A New York City law enacted this year requires hosts to register their units with the city and for platforms to share their data with authorities. Airbnb called this measure “draconian and unworkable” and it could potentially remove thousands of listings from the platform.
Stricter regulation could actually help Airbnb. The regulatory drive coincides with a push to standardise their service and improve their product. This acute scrutiny incentivises Airbnb to clean up the platform, giving them licence to downstream changes their users might otherwise resist. Since going public, CEO Brian Chesky has been on a mission to “professionalise” Airbnb, starting with increased cleaning requirements and hosting protocols that are seen to favour professional landlords. True to the platform model, Airbnb is able to outsource regulatory compliance and professionalisation to users, forcing landlords and guests to shoulder costs, while the company collects more revenue.
Counterintuitively, the Montreal fire could provide cover to normalise STRs in the city’s housing system. In this journal, Nina Medvedeva (2023) wrote about how hosts in US cities respond to regulation and justify their own practices. Medvedeva found that hosts “displace the displeasing aspects of STRs” onto less reputable peers. The worst hosts, such as those operating the rentals in Old Montreal, serve as useful totems for more professionalised hosts, shifting the debate away from housing affordability to basic safety. Regulatory efforts such as those proposed by Quebec risk legitimising Airbnb, making it a protected component of the housing system and a more secure choice for investors. It’s unlikely that all of Airbnb’s unlicensed listings in Montreal will disappear; instead, we will likely witness the type of hybridisation observed by Piletić (2023), in which Airbnb launders landlord-friendly regulations that erode remaining renter protections.
A conversation focused on bad apples derails discussion of Airbnb’s role, and cities’ complacency, in housing affordability crises. More recently, Montreal police announced a criminal investigation of arson at the building. The fire brought attention to inadequate STR laws and toothless enforcement, but the criminal case risks narrowing the focus to an acute criminal act. Restricting Airbnb won’t solve the housing crisis alone, but it’s a good first step. Officials may be afraid to take this step—if cities like Montreal acknowledge Airbnb’s impact on housing, they are faced with their complacency and inaction with the housing crisis. If they can take a first step, they can take further steps, like funding affordable housing and strengthening rent controls. Almost 500 Montreal households were left without a lease after the city’s traditional 1 July moving day, which can’t be attributed to arson and Airbnb alone.
Those of us frustrated that it took multiple deaths for the city to scrutinise Airbnb need to harness this outrage. A criminal case doesn’t let anyone off the hook; we have to examine the cascading system failures that led to this disaster. We can’t allow stakeholders to treat safety and affordability as two separate issues. Safe lodging has always been central to fights for housing justice. Sensational cases like this can distract from endemic crisis, but they also provide opportunity for advocates to illustrate how these issues intersect. Housing advocates need to communicate that this fatal incident is not exceptional, but symptomatic of the platform model and neoliberal accumulation itself. It’s said that Airbnb kills neighbourhoods—inaction costs actual lives.
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Photograph by Mickael Pollard: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vieux_Montreal_-_Old_Montreal.jpg (CC BY-SA 2.0)