What is it? More of a conceptual one this week, sorry. Yeah, I know. No, yeah. Yeah. Yeah I know they’re not as good. No. Yeah. No, of course. Next week, next week. Next week we’ll go back to "photos of a sofa facing bluntly into a wall with some commentary from me that just says 'this is bad'".
Where is it? This "four opening questions" salvo doesn’t really work when it’s a concept one, I admit that now.
What is there to do locally? I should probably just get to the point and then we can kind of pretend it’s a normal version of the column: due to coronavirus, the absolute arseholé has fallen out of the Airbnb hosting market, meaning Airbnb hosts now look like they're dropping their holiday lets onto more proper, long-term rental sites – the Gumtrees, the Rightmoves, the Zooplas, &c. – in a bid to fill these vacant flats at the most exorbitant rate possible in this, a time of global pandemic.
Airbnb hosts, on the hierarchical scheme, are a little below proper landlords in the pure evil terms, but are definitely right up there in broader evil terms, and also because they have their own industry-specific language – "host", "superhost", "we’ve docked 90 percent of your deposit and given you a one-star guest review because you drank a glass of orange juice" – they have the same annoying vibe as Adults Who Get Way Too Into a Hobby at age 35.
Spiritually, actually, they are weirdly similar to Mumsnet forum power users (hobby: having children; language of the hobby: saying "DH" all the time to describe the man who washes his penis out in a special beaker every time he raws you). If you don’t understand Airbnb hosts, imagine everyone with a fun Mumsnet forum profile name ("mummy_wunchkins") and at least 1,000 posts about how smug they find Fearne Cotton owning a spare sidepiece property they’ve painted a Hinchian shade of grey and rent out for an inexplicable nightly rate and list as being in "London" despite it being, like, Oxshott at best.
I feel like this metric got a little bit out of control somewhere up around 70 words ago but this is what happens when it’s a conceptual one, the structure gets all bent out of shape, and please also bear in mind I’ve been indoors a lot lately and that also tends to tinge the writing. The government is literally ordering hotels to house the homeless right now but Airbnb hosts are trying to get £1,900 for some pitiable one-bed in the middle of Liverpool Street. "Great city connections" don’t really have the same zing when getting on a train is 80 percent of a death sentence, to be quite honest.
Alright, how much are they asking? Not even going to take a swing at answering this one in case I slip down another hill of punctuation and tangents and end up, bruised and bloodied by the momentum of my own foul body, down on the floor below. See, I literally just did it again.
Airbnb gets a lot of criticism from people, and it is fine that it gets that because it ruins every city it touches. I know it’s good when you’re on holiday, yeah. No, I’ve used it too. But fundamentally, Airbnb takes property – a finite resource, one of which we all need some sort of access to, unless you want to go full Ray Mears and go live in a tent on a roundabout – and keeps it hostage, not just from the needy (e.g. homeless people), not just from the occupants of the city the property is in (e.g. renters and, in a perfect world, buyers), but keeping the property solely for people who visit for like, two-day trips, eating in three restaurants, going to two bars, paying their museum fee and buying but not spending all the money on a travelcard, and yelping out of there again.
Hotels are fine for this function, because hotels appropriately use the space assigned to them to house people visiting the city (visiting a city, by the way, is not a crime). Airbnbs, though, are a grainier, grimier presence on the moral scale. Someone could live in the flat, sure, and spend money in the immediate local area, and contribute to the community, and get to know their neighbours, and form those invisible but iron-tight little knitted bonds that make a city, well, alive. Alternatively, two people in astonishingly unfashionable shorts and some sort of always-on bumbag full of cash could sleep there for three nights out of a week, and some distant landlord can make an astonishing amount of profit from washing their towels and replacing their toiletries exactly once. So Airbnb isn’t evil, and the function of it is broadly useful, but it does lead to irreparable social decay. You know.
Anyway, Airbnb is dead, for now, which is good. Airbnb got coronavirus and died. Airbnb – like, well most industries on the planet, right now – has necessarily had to fold down into itself, because people aren’t travelling, and so they don’t need to Airbnb things anymore, which means there is now an abundance of property, previously used exclusively for Airbnb, that is going vacant. This does not mean that these properties can suddenly house people in desperate need, or NHS workers, or people fundamentally needing to self-isolate away from the high-risk people they live with. No, that would be sensible and would not lead to profit. No, what that now means is Airbnb flats are now being listed with all the other flats on all the flat websites. This is exactly what's happening in Ireland right now, and – if you follow my three telltale signs – seems to be happening in London:
- Every photo of an Airbnb-turned-flat includes a made bed with a towel folded up on the end of it, instead of the usual property listing photo of a bed, which is just a raw mattress flopped on a boxframe that has been left at some weird angle in the middle of a bedroom, where the previous tenant moved it to hoover behind it in a doomed attempt to get their deposit back; 2) every bathroom in these listings has a visible and small little dish of packaged soap, there, on the side, that indicate this property is somewhere halfway between a hotel and a rental; and 3) the prices of these things has been extrapolated from a normal nightly rate, and so is absolutely, heinously, insanely expensive.
A couple of potential examples, here: a soulless one-bed in Liverpool Street for £1,900 a month (!), and a just-fine one-bed for £1,200 a month in Hounslow West. Have you ever booked an Airbnb in an unfamiliar city and realised, two Tubes and a bus away from the airport you first arrived in three hours ago, that your home for the next week is not, actually, in the city you thought it was in, but was very much on the outer-outer outskirts of it, and you’re going to have to travel about an hour-and-a-half each way every day before you can really do anything on this holiday? Now imagine you live in that property. It’s in Hounslow West, and it costs you £1,200 a month. Thank you, Airbnb, for your bounteous gifts.
Obviously I hope that nobody will take any of these rental offers up from the people offering them – it does broadly seem, from me dipping gleefully into landlord forums this week just to delight in their misery, that the rental market has gummed up to a standstill, and beyond a few maddeningly bad apple landlords insistently moving new tenants into isolated houseshares, or moving high-risk isolators out because their tenancies are up, everyone is more-or-less staying put – but I do wonder how the sudden influx of property (and overpriced property at that) will affect the market that rises out of all this.
Imagine the scenario: it is June 2020, and you are finally allowed out of the house. You have spent the last few months either earning 80 percent of your salary or on universal credit, so financially you are more on your arse than you were before this whole crisis started, and – let’s be honest – baby’s lager habit had got you in quite the state before that, hadn’t it, so you really are on the dregs of your overdraft here, are you not. Your tenancy agreement is up next month and you are absolutely fucking sick of the sight of the inside of your flat so you decide to move on.
Only… oh, there seem to be a lot of flats on the market. Lots of towels on these beds. And… hmm, OK, prices seem higher than when we were looking last year. Much higher, actually. Like 25 percent higher. And all the flats that don’t have towels on the beds are higher, too. “Tough shit,” your old landlord says, when you ask them to renew the lease instead. “Market rate through the roof. Extra £400 a month, please.”
But you’ve only just got your job back, you say. We are going through our second once-in-a-generation recession, somehow. There is no money. We all stayed indoors for three months and rendered the concept of money close to irrelevant. You remember that, right? You remember that? It happened like literally 12 weeks ago?
“I run a business,” your landlord, a high fantasist, says. “Pay for the service, or get out.”
Is this the trigger? Is this what finally renders London a generational warzone? Excess Airbnb stock, diluting an already ruined property market, busting the rate, rammed hard against bullheaded landlord obstinance, until we all just have to admit defeat and move out to the satellite cities around London, and, by our very presence, ruin their property market as well? In two furthers years there’s yet another 2008-style property collapse and we, inexplicably, experience our third once-in-a-generation recession, somehow? I don’t know, I’ve been inside too much. I’m getting carried away, probably. Probably! Probably. I’m probably just getting carried away. Pr—