Sort by

The Return of the Boarder: What Airbnb Tells Us About the Economy

David Callahan

In earlier times, before the dawn of modern American prosperity, it was common for hard pressed families to take in boarders. Watch some old movies if that era has slipped your mind. Then good times arrived, and renting out rooms to survive was no longer a widespread imperative. Images of the quirky boarding house were supplanted in the media by the sprawling suburban home or spacious urban apartment. 

Now, though, boarding is back in a big way—so much so that some 31,139 New Yorkers alone are listing spare bedrooms, or mere couches, in their homes and apartments on Airbnb. The service has 6,100 listings in San Francisco, one of the other priciest cities in the United States. 
Depressing stories are surfacing of strapped apartment dwellers facing eviction because they tried to to make some extra money by renting to strangers over the Internet in violation of co-op or condo rules. Roommate situations are also up. Just today the New York Times mentioned the story of a 54-year-old nanny who "pays $828 a month for a rundown one-bedroom that she keeps spotlessly clean, making the rent only by letting an acquaintance sleep on a mattress in the living room for about $400 a month."
So how many Americans overall are hard up enough to invite visitors to crash for as little as $25 a night? As of today, Airbnb has 109,110 listings in the United States. 
It's no wonder that Airbnb is doing so well given the near-record shortage of affordable housing, a crisis documented in the Times article cited above. More people are renting than ever before, but the stock of rental housing hasn't kept pace -- a trend that residents of New York, San Francisco, Washington, and so on, know all too well. Building affordable housing, it turns out, was just a passing fad of earlier and more liberal America. Now cities just roll out the red carpet to developers catering to the affluent. Meanwhile, while the cost to buy a home has come down nationally, prices remain extremely high in all the urban areas where Airbnb is most popular.
You can get a sense of where housing is most expensive by looking at where Airbnb is doing best. Affordable Chicago, with nearly 3 million people, has about 2,500 Airbnb listings. Boston has a fifth of Chicago's population but insanely high housing prices -- and nearly as many Airbnb listings as giant Chicago. 
As Airbnb hosting has proliferated, so have horror stories of people who took in guests and regretted it. Of course, though, this age of inequality is filled with risks: not having health insurance, not having enough money to retire, not getting a good job despite taking on mountains of education debt, and on and on. In comparison, renting out your couch to a German tourist is pretty benign.
And there is an upside. After poverty and insecurity, loneliness may rank as the biggest problem facing America, and Airbnb offers a solution to that problem. Open your doors and meet some new people—and get paid to boot. 
Many Americans still live alone because they can afford to. But hard times is not only forcing people onto Airbnb, it is forcing them to live with relatives and friends. While I don't want my own brother moving in with me, I can see how this could be a good thing in some ways, reducing the atomization of American society. Still, it says something about just how strapped we've become.