I was introduced to one of the first house-sharing platforms back in 2006. Hosts would offer up their couches to travellers for free (yes, you heard that right), trading unused space and genuine hospitality for new friendships and cultural exchange. I hosted travellers at my home in Los Angeles and gave them architecture and history tours of Downtown LA. I sofa-surfed in Poland, Morocco, Russia and France. My friends couldn’t believe I gave up my living room to strangers, offered tours and stayed in foreign cities – all for free. No-one had heard of the sharing economy.
By 2014, short-term holiday lets had encroached on both residential rental property and the hotel industry by skirting local housing laws, contributing to gentrification and overtourism. In places like San Francisco and Berlin, citizens blamed rising rents, housing shortages and the touristification of city centres on these “home sharing” platforms, which had transformed from the utopian sharing economy into another form of mass tourism.
Emanuele dal Carlo, a native of Venice, began researching in 2015 to find out how short-term rentals were affecting his city. What he found shocked him: 30 per cent of hosts were not registered with the public authority.
“We started thinking about how this was impacting the local economy, the local residents,” he said. “How much of this money was leaving for tax havens, or being extracted by foreigners who just bought their property as an investment?”
Similar concerns were being raised across Europe, leading to a wave of urban activism. In Berlin, data journalists examined Airbnb’s software to determine how many individuals rented out more than five properties in the city, publishing their findings at Airbnb vs Berlin. Amsterdam levied a tourist tax on Airbnb hosts, and implemented rules about how many nights per year residential homes could be rented. Barcelona fined both Airbnb and HomeAway for advertising unpermitted holiday rentals.
All the while, Mr dal Carlo was brainstorming a bridge between the sharing utopia and the absorption of tourist revenue into big tech companies: creating a house-sharing platform that could vet hosts, assuring that they were real local residents following municipal housing and rental policies, and that they had only one listing on the short-term market, across all platforms. He wanted to see tourism contribute to local economies and connect tourists to locals, like the original home-sharing dream had promised.
“A true sharing economy is giving people the power to make decisions and reinvest,” he told me over Zoom, joined by three other co-founders in Bologna.
“We wanted to create a system that is inherently fair, by design, instead of using the sharing economy narrative simply to become a middleman who extracts value from a community.”
Soon, Mr dal Carlo discovered he wasn’t the only one thinking about this. In Amsterdam, Jonathan Reyes was a citizen activist speaking out against gentrification and a ballooning rental market. Not only was he part of launching a new house-sharing network, their group had also decided to reinvest the profits from it back into social projects in low-income communities, using tourist dollars to solve urban problems. When The Guardian published a story about this new platform, Fairbnb Coop, Mr dal Carlo immediately contacted Mr Reyes. Counterparts in Valencia, Bologna and Barcelona followed.
“What I can tell you, by reading hundreds of emails, is that there is a need for this. For a new way of addressing tourism’s neglect of sustainability. Hosts want an alternative,” said Mr dal Carlo.
It turns out city dwellers across Europe want alternatives. The Fairbnb team set up a website and started recruiting local ambassadors. In each city, a local ambassador who understands the platform’s sustainability model can adapt it to their community’s needs. Eventually, the ambassadors would be responsible for meeting each host and vetting them for legal and platform compliance before the listing could go live.
“We are not just making software,” Mr dal Carlo added. “We are providing an experience: for the tourist, for the host and for the community. We want to create jobs in the city and put money back on the ground.”
Fairbnb.coop launched its beta site in November 2019, and the bookings began to come in. But then came the story we all know so well: Covid. Reservations dried up. But the founders and ambassadors didn’t lose heart: they took the time to continue growing the community, confident that the tourist market would return.
“In that time, we were able to connect people who started thinking about how a real circular economy could be activated. It’s thinking global, but with a local presence,” added Dominico di Siena, another co-founder.
I spoke to them from their first in-person meeting since the pandemic began, and their excitement was contagious. Fairbnb.coop re-launched in June 2021 across nine cities, with almost 20 more coming soon. Some hosts have already taken bookings. Amsterdam-based co-founder Mr Reyes says the next step is to expand the profit-sharing even more universally.
“We want users to become owners of the programme, too, like a workers’ cooperative that includes all local partners. We are trying to understand how to include hosts in the cooperative structure.”
In September, the co-founders, ambassadors, hosts and travellers will meet together for the first mass Fairbnb event in Italy – and they even invited me to join. Now I’m just looking for a host.
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