Tight budgets and the internet have given rise to the hottest new thing in travel accommodations. Web-based company Airbnb has received a lot of press recently for its for-profit service that matches travelers with spare bedrooms, such as mine (pictured).

It’s already growing like moss in the Northwest winter, but the potential is much bigger than most have considered. Airbnb and other companies that create a market for guest rooms could fundamentally change the hotel industry, boost income for thousands of householders (including Sightline interns like me!), and slash the ecological footprint of travel.

That is, unless an existing thicket of rules and regulations on the operation of hotels strangles the emerging eBay of empty bedrooms.

Cascadian jurisdictions have yet to crack down on informal hoteling, but authorities elsewhere have.

Case in point: New York City enacted a law in May 2011 “banning renting out Class A residential spaces — apartments intended only as permanent, rather than transient, residences — for less than 30 days,” according to the real-estate magazine Real Deal.

“The move was prompted, in large part, by complaints from those living next to apartments rented on the website, as well as from the Hotel Association of New York City, a trade group that was concerned about short-term rentals eating into the city’s hospitality business.”

Another online source quotes an Airbnb representative arguing that the New York ordinance was not aimed at them at all but at other types of enterprises. Whatever the impetus for the law, though, its effect is to cast a legal shadow, if not a legal net, over peer-to-peer sharing of accommodations. So far, though, Airbnb is still going strong in New York City, with growth clocking in at 35 percent per month since September 2010.

Informal hoteling is still in its infancy. In greater Seattle, for example, about 700 different lodgings are now available on a typical night.

That’s two percent of the 34,459 hotel rooms in the greater Seattle/King County area, and it counts both Airbnb and Couchsurfing.org, the older, free counterpart used by backpack travelers worldwide.If Airbnb is the eBay of guest rooms, couchsurfing is the Craigslist.

Greater Vancouver, BC, where housing is so  expensive that householders may be especially keen to supplement their incomes, has more informal hoteling than Seattle, with about 800 Airbnb and 700 couchsurfer listings on average nights. Even those numbers do not threaten the formal hotel sector, though. The city has 12,900 hotel rooms in the downtown area alone.

Still, the rapid growth of in-home accommodations could end future growth in hotels.

That’s especially true when you consider that much of the Northwest’s existing housing stock was designed for larger families than are common today.

One study by Urban Futures in Vancouver, BC, estimated that 29 percent of all homes had more bedrooms than people in them. That’s more than 220,000 empty bedrooms—a massive untapped reservoir of accommodations, already built, painted, furnished, heated (and sometimes cooled), and provided with bathroom and kitchen access. Channeling travel growth into existing homes rather than new hotels would bring big environmental benefits, as Finnish think tank low2no.org argued in an analysis of the carbon footprint of hotels.

Airbnb and Couchsurfing are promising new ventures, yet they are also a return to an older pattern of travel. They have used new technology to resurrect the age-old practice of taking in lodgers and boarders.

They are also a simple extension of the still-pervasive pattern of staying with distant relatives, friends, or friends of friends. Just as eBay and Craigslist have given new technological potency to yard sales and flea markets, person-to-person accommodation networks have facilitated the emergence of a larger and more reliable marketplace for informal hoteling.

Yet this green, affordable, and sociable form of housing for travelers is as vulnerable to ill-considered regulation as are car-sharinghair braiding, and solar clothes drying.

Conventional hotels are regulated in special ways under land-use laws (their locations and sizes), building codes (fire safety, structural integrity, handicap access), health codes (especially if they have restaurants), and tax laws (most Cascadian jurisdictions have special taxes on hotel stays, for example).

The spare-bedroom market, however, flies under the radar of most such laws at present. Exempting it from hotel-specific regulations makes good sense. Social evaluation tools on collaborative consumption sites such as Airbnb allow a degree of transparency unheard of in prior times, and that transparency obviates the need for as much regulation and public enforcement.

Besides, in the new era of straitened economics, expensive energy, and the imperative of moving beyond carbon, we should be encouraging, not constraining, fuller sharing of existing assets, whether cars or bedrooms. Especially when it lets householders earn a little extra money.

Chris LaRoche is a Sightline intern, recent MPA grad and occasional traveler. This post originally appeared on Sightline, a non-profit online news source covering environmental, social, and economic issues affecting the Northwest

Comments

  • Guest

    Look at it from my perspective as a condominium owner. I bought into a community of people who care enough about our community to invest in a home in which they intend to live. I didn’t buy a room in a hotel where travelers can come and trash the place to forfeit a modest security deposit.

    Although Airbnb represents a disruption to the hotel industry, if its power is unchecked it will represent a disruption to my peace and quiet. The latter shall not stand.

    • http://twitter.com/phonebanshee phonebanshee

      Your condo bylaws probably prohibit this already, and if not they can be changed.  You don’t need the city or state.

  • http://twitter.com/phonebanshee phonebanshee

    The existing regulations are probably really bad news for airbnb-style rentals anyway.

    What happens when someone rents a room for a weekend, and then doesn’t leave?  I think you might have a problem.  There are lots of laws around what sorts of contracts are enforceable for residential real estate.  In particular, I’d be really concerned that you need to go through a formal eviction process (30 days notice, etc) to get rid of them.  Don’t just read the airbnb contract – you need to know what city law says too.  It very well may be that city law does things like set a minimum of 30 days for a rental contract.

  • Ronald S. Ronny

    I have been a landlord in Silicon Valley since 1992.  AirBNB etc. — real dumb idea. Because while a percentage of the renters will be fine, a percentage will probably ruin the system.

    – squatting behavior — person won’t leave — only way to remove them is by a 4 to 8 week eviction — the police will tell you ‘it’s a civil matter’ because you cannot say ‘There’s a stranger in my house’ — that stranger will show the police they’re not a ‘stranger’, they rented the place legally and have a contract — the police do NOT enforce civil contracts

    – renter has no stake in the unit, they are leaving the area, if they cause damage you can find it tough to get them to pay

    We have evicted people with 700+ credit scores from our properties.  The naive assumption “people are rational; people who have been screened are safe” — real dumb.  Folks you would not BELIEVE the range of behaviors (drinking/drugging/property damage/harrassing others/wholesale defiance of rules of the contract) that renters can exhibit.  It’s a real eye opener.  There are some awful awful and unpredictable people out there.

    An analogy:  another short-term rental business — the car rental business.  Ask yourself:

    1) what % of their rental cars get destroyed by their customers?

    2) what % of their rental cars are used in a criminal acts then discarded?

    3) you may be aware that rental car companies are in the used car business — they sell their older/used rentals to the public.  Do *all* of Dollar Rent-A-Car or Enterprise or Avis’s rental cars get sold to the public when the rental company refreshes its fleet?  WHAT HAPPENED to all the (short-term rental) cars that Hertz did not sell?

    AirBNB.  Wow.  People with $100,000, $200,000,  $500,000 properties — that they will still have to pay a mortgage on next month — renting to a transient who is also a stranger — wow.  Babes in the woods.  Dangerous.  Good luck out there people.

  • Ronald S. Ronny

    I have been a landlord in Silicon Valley since 1992.  AirBNB etc. — real dumb idea. Because while a percentage of the renters will be fine, a percentage will probably ruin the system.

    – squatting behavior — person won’t leave — only way to remove them is by a 4 to 8 week eviction — the police will tell you ‘it’s a civil matter’ because you cannot say ‘There’s a stranger in my house’ — that stranger will show the police they’re not a ‘stranger’, they rented the place legally and have a contract — the police do NOT enforce civil contracts

    – renter has no stake in the unit, they are leaving the area, if they cause damage you can find it tough to get them to pay

    We have evicted people with 700+ credit scores from our properties.  The naive assumption “people are rational; people who have been screened are safe” — real dumb.  Folks you would not BELIEVE the range of behaviors (drinking/drugging/property damage/harrassing others/wholesale defiance of rules of the contract) that renters can exhibit.  It’s a real eye opener.  There are some awful awful and unpredictable people out there.

    An analogy:  another short-term rental business — the car rental business.  Ask yourself:

    1) what % of their rental cars get destroyed by their customers?

    2) what % of their rental cars are used in a criminal acts then discarded?

    3) you may be aware that rental car companies are in the used car business — they sell their older/used rentals to the public.  Do *all* of Dollar Rent-A-Car or Enterprise or Avis’s rental cars get sold to the public when the rental company refreshes its fleet?  WHAT HAPPENED to all the (short-term rental) cars that Hertz did not sell?

    AirBNB.  Wow.  People with $100,000, $200,000,  $500,000 properties — that they will still have to pay a mortgage on next month — renting to a transient who is also a stranger — wow.  Babes in the woods.  Dangerous.  Good luck out there people.

  • StefanoNBelinda

    COUCHSURFING is free. don’t confuse it with AirBnB and others

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