Labor and Property on Airbnb

Jelke Bosma

The Platform Labor research project aims to determine how digital platforms are transforming the organization of labor, livelihood, and governance in cities marked by eroding welfare systems. My research project looks into Airbnb, the most prominent platform in the tourism and short term housing rental. Over the past decade Airbnb has grown into a multi-billion company - the company has been valued over $30 billion in relation to its upcoming IPO - and with millions of listings worldwide has become a common option for people looking for short-term accommodation. In this research note, I reflect on my findings so far. In particular, I explore how on Airbnb incomes can be generated and other types of value created through a combination of platform labor and property. While property is relatively hard to get access to, it seems Airbnb is actively lowering the threshold on the labor side, allowing more stakeholders to generate an income on Airbnb in diverging ways.

Platform Labor or Platform Property?

Airbnb connects people who have a spare space to offer to others who are looking for a place to stay. That space might be your own apartment, which you rent out while you're on holiday or a spare room you make available to guests. It might be another house, bought deliberately to put on Airbnb. It might even be a sea container, illegally left in a residential area, as happened in Amsterdam recently. Given the importance of having a space, I commenced my research with the feeling that Airbnb is primarily about property. In that sense, the case seemed to have a somewhat odd place in the Platform Labor project. Up to a certain extent it is true that property is important on Airbnb - in principle one cannot be an Airbnb host without having a space to offer. However, a closer look at the everyday practices of hosts suggests that being a successful host involves more than having a spare room available. As Airbnb's design team wrote in a 2016 blog post:

hosting—both on our platform and offline—is hard work. It involves responsibilities like changing the sheets, replacing the towels, emptying the trash, messaging and coordinating with guests, meeting them at the door to check them in, and so much more.

A space thus isn't enough. Hosting on Airbnb requires a lot of labor as well and might include cleaning, listing management, and communication with (potential) guests. This suggests that property and labor are brought together in the platform, affording hosts to generate an income. But who are they exactly? This is one of the key questions of my research project, looking into the dynamics of value creation on Airbnb. I'm questioning, first of all, who are able to create value using Airbnb and what types of value - economic, but also social, cultural, political, and possibly others - does the platform help them realize? How do they do this? What skills and resources does it require to make a living using the platform? But as not everyone benefits, I am also asking who are excluded from these valorization processes. What keeps particular groups and individuals from using the platform and how does this relate to gender, race, and class inequalities in cities? Third, whereas Airbnb rentals are offered by individuals or businesses, the actual apartments are embedded in the spatial, social, and economic context of the neighborhood. I address this by questioning how Airbnb affects socio-economic dynamics on a neighborhood level.

To answer these questions I am currently conducting ethnographic research in Berlin, currently focussing on the northern part of the city district Neukölln including the neighborhoods Schillerkiez and Reuterkiez. Both neighborhoods are home to high concentrations of Airbnb listings and have seen a large influx of new, higher-income residents over the past decades, resulting in gentrification and big differences between average existing rents and rent levels for new tenants. Neukölln moreover isn't home to a lot of traditional tourist attractions or tourist accommodation, making them particularly prone to Airbnb-induced changes. What still puzzles me about Airbnb in Neukölln, is how the number of Airbnb listings can be as high as it is even though nearly 90% of the housing stock is rental housing. Subletting is not allowed without permission and it seems not to be in the interest of landlords. This complicates the relation between property and labour on Airbnb, as whose property is actually rented out and by whom? I'll have to figure out if landlords in fact do allow Airbnb rentals (and possibly take a share of the income), or if tenants just don't ask permission and take the risk of being evicted for granted.

While my initial focus is on Neukölln, I am considering to widen my perspective to other districts as well for several reasons. First of all, quite a lot businesses offer services for Airbnb hosts Berlin-wide. Host community meetings also brings together Airbnb hosts from all over the city. Secondly, city districts seem to enforce the regulations for short term rental in different ways. Four of the twelve districts - not including Neukölln - have recently officially demanded that Airbnb provides data on hosts who didn't adhere to the rules, including the obligation to register or get a permit. Widening my focus might give me more insights into how diverse enforcement tactics and intensities play out for hosts. Thirdly, while a lot of Airbnb-induced changes might be expected in a neighborhood that is in the early stages of gentrification, contrasting this with up-market areas would give me more nuanced view on Airbnb's effect on neighborhoods.

By joining events related to Airbnb, speaking to people that are involved, and embedding myself in the field, I explore how hosts, neighborhood residents, Airbnb-related businesses, and policy makers relate to Airbnb in their everyday (professional and private) life. In later stages of my research I will follow up on this in Amsterdam and New York, allowing me to compare my findings in Berlin with other cities in divergent contexts.

Outsourcing and DIY Hosting

While 'hosts' and 'guests' are the platform users who are usually on the foreground in media coverage of and research on Airbnb, there are additional actors who generate a living on the platform. The introduction of Airbnb Experiences, where activities such as guided tours or photography workshops can be offered, shows how Airbnb is trying to attract a wider group of actors to the platform. But within Airbnb Homes, which is the focus of my research, the platform is opening to other types of actors than the archetypical host as well. In 2016, Airbnb introduced a functionality that allows the owners of a listing to select co-hosts that assist the host with particular tasks. In return co-hosts might receive a share of the hosts' income from the rental. Last March, Airbnb launched their collaborative 'Teams' tool for professional users 'to help anyone with a passion for exceptional hospitality grow their business on Airbnb.'

These tools show how not just property owners are able to create value using Airbnb. Indeed, the success of platforms can be partially explained because they allow many different groups to tap in to the value creation process. In some cases these companies or individuals offer services that help Airbnb hosts, including anything from cleaning to baggage and key drop-offs. In other cases these businesses offer digital and management services, ranging from algorithmic price-setting advice to full listing management services that allow complete outsourcing of all hosting responsibilities.

These services might help hosts to optimize their pricing, rent out their place more often, and manage more listings in the same amount of time. As such, some hosts are able to professionalize. This professionalization is stimulated on the platform itself as well. Hosts who conform to particular criteria are granted the status of 'Superhost'. High-quality listings that offer a standard set of amenities can be listed under the Airbnb-Plus heading after they are vetted by Airbnb. It remains unclear, however, who is able to become a Superhost; which hosts use services to outsource their tasks and which don't; which hosts are able to successfully professionalize and eventually turn their spare room into a business and which remain incidental hosts. Over the coming period, I hope to find out more about this. I'm also curious to get to know more about what the increasing professionalization of certain hosts means for those who are not able or willing to professionalize. How are incidental hosts affected by the increasing prevalence of boutique hotels, Superhosts, and Airbnb-Plus apartments?

The coming years promise to be exciting times. For Airbnb, as the company will go public while the struggle for the terms of their activities with many cities worldwide continues. It even remains to be seen if Airbnb will be allowed to continue their business at all in some neighborhoods. The same period might be just as exciting for me, as I'll be conducting my fieldwork in three cities that are the center of these struggles. I'll first continue my fieldwork here in Berlin, will then explore Airbnb in Amsterdam, and will finally dive into Airbnb in New York.