Unaffordable housing in New York City is a familiar issue that resonates with most natives, including myself. A study released in April found that almost 80 percent of NYC residents living below the true cost of living are considered housing-burdened, or contribute over 30 percent of their income to housing, which not only generates the risk of homelessness, but also strains the affordability of basic necessities such as food and health care. Empirically, this crisis has disproportionately affected residents of color, especially in new, “hip” or gentrified areas like Bushwick and the Lower East Side.
It doesn’t mean that there’s a true shortage of housing, though — even for low-income residents. In fact, more than 13,000 rent-stabilized units in NYC have been vacant for years. Even more shockingly, the city has boasted more Airbnb listings than apartments for rent as of April — 20,397 versus 7,669 units, respectively. Gentrification and inflation aside, Airbnb has become a silent but major force in the housing market since its start in 2008, as short-term rentals became more profitable than long-term rentals. Its profitability is despite the fact that available units could be sitting empty for any given number of days per month.
On Sept. 5, NYC officials started to enforce Local Law 18, which strictly regulates short-term rentals. However, considering how prolific Airbnb is, it will likely function as a de facto ban. Short-term rental hosts now need to register with the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement and can face fines up to $5,000 for violations of this rule, in addition to previous laws that mandate hosts be present on the property during a stay. Meanwhile, booking sites like Airbnb and Vrbo are held accountable for checking a host’s registration status in order to collect fees from a stay. The law has already caused thousands of Airbnb listings to be deactivated. As of Aug. 28, only 257 out of 3,250 registration applications had been approved, although the criteria remained unclear.
While it’s too soon to tell whether this ban on Airbnb will effectively address the city’s housing affordability crisis, it is a step in the right direction, specifically in curbing gentrification and displacement. Airbnb is not just savvy technology adopting the entrepreneurial, slumlord-esque spirit of late capitalism, nor is it “short-term” in the same way that most bookings are. Rather, Airbnb is culturally mediated, functioning through the intersection of social relationships and public spaces, and those short-term rentals do eventually add up to impact the neighborhood, community and culture for the long term. After all, the real economic opportunities for Airbnb hosts are in the hottest neighborhoods with the best bottomless brunch spots, coffee bars and of course Trader Joe’s. Think about the unwelcomed Whole Foods on 125th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem — “Bye-bye, black Harlem, glad I knew ye.” Angela Helm of The Root writes, “Hello, Whole Foods, I do enjoy your products, but if you can gentrify greens, what chance do we really have?”
But it’s also no wonder that people flock to Jackson Heights for the great food or that videos of Bed-Stuy block parties go viral online. People romanticize and cherish NYC for its culture, and Airbnbs have been capitalizing on the displacement and appropriation of cultural cachets. The McGill University School of Urban Planning found that “nearly three quarters of the population in neighborhoods at highest risk of Airbnb-induced gentrification across New York is non-white.” Meanwhile, across 72 predominantly Black NYC neighborhoods surveyed in a study by Inside Airbnb, 74 percent of the Airbnb host population was white, compared to about 14 percent white resident population. The discrepancy echoes what we’ve already known about Airbnbs — many hosts dedicate their properties entirely to short-term rentals, not actually living in them. It suggests a naive form of cultural tourism as well as a willingness to jeopardize the affordability and health of a neighborhood for profit. It also debunks the misconception that a rise in Airbnb use in a neighborhood would generate wealth for long-term residents and people of color.
But what came first? Gentrification or Airbnb tourism? It’s practically impossible to say for certain, although there is a high correlation between Airbnb use in predominantly Black neighborhoods and threats to affordable housing. Crown Heights North, for example, is ranked seventh for Airbnb use in all of NYC and has seen a 54 percent increase in its white population from 2010 to 2014. A 2018 controversy surrounding steel-pan bands, a tradition introduced by Caribbean immigrants, reveals the changing cultural landscape that correlates with this changing demographic. Bands’ practices were constantly interrupted by cops called upon by new residents unfamiliar with the tradition. As Tom Slee put it, the sharing economy, including Airbnbs, “is extending a harsh and 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 transform the way we think about labor, housing as a right, public space and its socioeconomic implications.
Some cities, like Toronto, have also enacted restrictions on Airbnb, which can be a helpful case study for housing affordability initiatives as time goes on. However, when it comes to gentrification, the NYC market has unique cultural precedence and recognizability, which also indicates vulnerability. Local Law 18 may or may not alleviate housing demand in NYC, but displacement in areas at risk of gentrification is a worthwhile start to rectifying Airbnb’s disruption thus far, and it would be amiss to dispiritedly distrust the law this quickly. Curbing gentrification takes a whole village — proper education, cultural sensitivity, material investments and Local Law 18 and its proper enforcement are all needed. I believe NYC’s culture can still be saved, and in this weird 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.