Airbnb is the poster child of the “sharing economy,” which is the idea that people share or rent out things they own themselves.
In the case of Airbnb, it’s obviously renting out your house.
But over the last two years, a counter-narrative to the sharing economy has developed. Some people think Airbnb isn’t really sharing at all, but just another kind of capitalism where the people who are already rich — homeowners — profit even more, potentially driving up rents in places where there already aren’t enough houses.
Airbnb is trying to fight that counter-narrative. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, global policy chief Chris Lehane said the company was building a “different form of capitalism.”
“We’re democratising capitalism,” he told Business Insider. “We are driving economics for people at the grassroots level, as opposed to people at the top of the supply chain.” By that he means that local homeowners are making money from tourists, rather than hotel chains which funnel their money out of the local economy.
Airbnb, he argued, puts money into the hands of locals, and lets people free up capital from things they aren’t using.
Business Insider asked if this still counted when a large number of Airbnb properties, particularly in London, appear to be rented out by commercial landlords, according to Inside Airbnb data. That doesn’t seem like a democratisation of wealth, exactly.
“It applies whether the beneficiary is renting our their own homes or additional properties,” said Lehane. “It’s still a different model to what existed before.”
He went on to say that Airbnb only represents a small portion of housing stock, and that issues such as London’s housing shortage were down to “bigger structural changes”.
That’s probably true, but Airbnb still decided to limit short-term lets in London at the end of last year to negate accusations that it was making London’s housing problems even worse.
Asked by The Financial Times whether these types of measures had had a negative impact on Airbnb’s business, Lehane didn’t give specific figures, but said the company didn’t want to be contributing to the problem.
“But I do think the Airbnb platform is a new thing, and you need a new approach for a new thing,” he added. “If you make this too restrictive, people will move on to other [services], particularly where people depend on this for making ends meet.”
Airbnb is also fighting the idea that it’s “Disneyfying” cities like Florence.
The company will invest €5 million (£4.4 million) in local programmes to promote what Lehane described as “healthy tourism” — that is trying to help cities keep their local flavour.
The fund will invest in charities, local projects, and not-for-profits. The initiative comes after researchers at the University of Siena in Italy blamed Airbnb for turning historic Italian cities into “theme parks for tourists.”