Airbnb incursion creating more sharing-economy complications

The term “sharing economy” is a wonderful, warm-the-heart euphemism, isn’t it? Can’t possibly be a problem in using technology and business savvy to help each other find convenient, collaborative consumption, right?

In Vancouver’s case, though, a certain chill is settling in as the feel-good intention to unlock idle accommodation capacity through the Airbnb lodging platform meets the realpolitik of the city’s housing affordability crisis.

This has a kind of Uber 2.0 feel to it: incumbents with a lot to lose, upstarts with a lot to offer and the city largely unable to look the other way but inert in reaching resolution.

Depending on perspective, Airbnb is either a saint or a sinner – a mortgage-helper for many property owners, a unit-stealer for many property renters.

And a few bad apples are threatening to spoil the whole barrel – the property manager-like operators of several units for short-term rent and the evictors who find it more lucrative to lease to visitors than to residents.

Click through and look for any night in the not-too-distant future, and hundreds of available units all over the city spring up as options. Researchers suggest more than 4,000 are available at any given point in Vancouver, a big bite out of the rental market.

Sharing economy? More like a shearing economy.

I might say, too, that there aren’t many basement bargains. Sure, you can find a $31-a-night private room, but mainly you are dealing with three-figure offerings. Airbnb’s site suggests the average is $122 per sleep.

Now, the legal problem is that any rental of less than 30 days contravenes a city bylaw, unless operators are licensed or are in a zone designated for hotels. That being said, there is little or no enforcement.

Airbnb finds itself, in some respects, like the city’s marijuana dispensaries did for a few years, caught between economic arguments to regulate or relent and social arguments to enforce or to live and let live, all the while circumventing the business rules of taxation and regulation.

Which is to say of Airbnb and the other similar services what we said of the dozens of recreational pot shops posing as medicinal rescue centres: we know they’re there, we can complain if we’d like, but for the time being not much is going to happen if we do.

Which would be fine if all these units didn’t exist in a city with a rental vacancy rate of less than 1% and with a governing municipal party that claims to champion the renting cohort.

Enter, belatedly, the city administration. Its intervention is about as timely as suggesting an election strategy today for the federal NDP to unseat Stephen Harper.

The city government’s approach on Airbnb is starting as a seemingly benign information gathering and congenial dialogue with the multinational website, but make no mistake, it’s a heavily political play.

Without a recent federal deal to build affordable housing on a broad scale, and with day after day of real estate revelations about which it is impotent, the sudden snap-to on Airbnb is a dog whistle to the core supporters.

Big bark, little bite, mind you.

For its part, Airbnb has been tactful and even conciliatory. Even as its breadth approaches Olympian scope – more than 1.5 million listings in 34,000 cities in 190 countries – it isn’t taking some of the strident tones of Uber in insinuating its economic disruption into the convention.

In recent weeks, for instance, it has almost begged U.S. cities to tax it to get some clarity and coherence and to escape the brand of an underground economic menace. It claims American cities are missing a US$2 billion opportunity in the next decade.

And that’s what will make any significant change in Vancouver difficult. When a sharing-economy giant is willing to share the spoils, when it practically pushes you to take the cash, can you really do much more than say thanks? 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.