America’s housing crisis is, indisputably, a crisis. Just ask Reverend Carolina, pastor of First Central Baptist Church in Staten Island. His congregants have felt the impact of swelling home costs and lagging income levels.
“A large percentage of the residents of Staten Island are homeowners rather than renters,” Carolina told Sojourners. “During times of economic hardship when people were losing homes and mortgages, Staten Island was disproportionately impacted in terms of homeownership around New York City."
Between 1960 and 2016, the median home value in the U.S. increased by 112 percent, while median homeowner income levels rose by just 50 percent . Renters too felt the pinch when median rent costs soared by 61 percent while median renter incomes grew by a dismal 5 percent.
Elizabeth Heyman, community organizer for Jews United for Justice in D.C., has personally felt the brunt of the escalated cost.
“I just moved into a one-bedroom apartment in D.C. and even that was a stretch to pay for rent — and I have a job and two degrees. It doesn’t make sense,” Heyman said.
The widening gap between income and cost of living caused 38 percent of renting Americans to spend 30 percent or more of their total income on rent in 2015, and led to the eviction of 2.3 million Americans in 2016.
Now, Airbnb — the company that ushered home-sharing into the mainstream — is facing backlash for exacerbating the affordable housing crisis in cities across the U.S. By booking weekend getaways through Airbnb and other home-sharing sites, travelers may be unknowingly and inadvertently worsening the crisis and supporting an industry that deprives locals of much needed long-term housing options.
When Airbnb moved into the neighborhood
The creators of Airbnb originally intended for owners to remain present as they hosted visitors in their homes. Yet today, many Airbnb hosts own multiple residencies, so they can rent out entire properties to their guests. Every house or apartment used exclusively by Airbnb guests is a space that is unavailable to a potential long-term tenant. In D.C. alone, it is estimated that 66 percent of Airbnb listings are for entire housing-units rather than for a shared part of a host’s permanent residence.
Corporate investors are known to purchase swaths of properties and rent them out as Airbnb listings rather than make them available on the housing market, essentially turning properties into unregulated hotels. In the D.C. neighborhood of Columbia Heights, a 2016 sting operation exposed an investor who turned a 21-unit building into an Airbnb hotel. Staying three nights in one of the building’s Airbnb listings cost what many locals pay for one month’s rent.
In addition to creating a housing shortage, Airbnb escalates already rising rent costs by making long-term rentals harder to come by and therefore more expensive. In New York City, 9.2 percent of the surge in rent between 2009 and 2016 can be attributed to Airbnb. Similarly, the D.C. neighborhoods with the most Airbnb listings saw an average rent increase of 14.9 percent as compared to 11 percent in the rest of the District. Reports have also linked Airbnb to rising rent prices in cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and Portland.
Critics claim that Airbnb also incentivizes displacement of low-income populations and racial minorities. Landlords have been found to evict renters to turn properties into Airbnb sites.In neighborhoods where Airbnb is driving up housing costs, low-income residents face relocation.
If what critics are saying is true, people of faith ought to be concerned — and many are.
People of faith respond
In May 2018, 28 faith leaders from churches across New York City responded to the impact of Airbnb in a strongly-worded letter to the head of New York Public policy.
Reverend Dr. Carolina was one of the 28 signatories. A pastor and city commissioner of human rights for New York City, Airbnb first came to his attention through his parishioners, many of whom expressed concerns over Airbnb and its impact on their neighborhood.
After local community organizers asked Carolina to sign the letter, he did so in the hopes that it would launch a public dialogue about Airbnb. He acknowledged that while Airbnb can allow residents to “maintain their homes, pay mortgages, sustain a comfortable existence, and share in the American dream,” it also creates problems related to safety and affordability.
“We won’t allow you to exacerbate the affordable housing crisis in communities of color,” the letter read. “We urge you to take responsibility, cease the baseless attacks on those trying to protect tenants, and stop shielding the thousands of illegal listings on your website by sharing those addresses with the city’s enforcement agency.”
Three months after the letter was delivered, Mayor de Blasio signed a bill that will clamp down on illegal Airbnb listings and establish penalties for failing to properly submit host site information to the Mayor’s Office. The new law takes effect in February 2019, and echoes similar bills passed in San Francisco and New Orleans.
Following suit, the D.C. City Council is currently reviewing its own Airbnb bill. Though the final vote on the bill was originally slated for mid-October, the council postponed the vote until Nov. 13 after several council members raised last-minute objections. The bill limits Airbnb hosts to listing only one property and requires them to obtain a short-term rental business license. It also restricts Airbnb hosts to renting their listing a maximum of 90 days without being present.
Heyman was one of several faith-leaders who testified at an April hearing for the D.C. Airbnb bill.
“Judaism teaches that everyone should have a safe and dignified home,” Heyman said at the hearing. “While many in our community don’t have to worry about the permanence or dignity of their housing, there are far too many people in our city who do.”
Heyman, whose organization works on affordable housing, told Sojourners that, “We need to be protecting the city, not making it possible for people who have multiple homes to profit off the residents of D.C.”
However, as an Airbnb user herself, she noted that that when properly regulated, there are potential benefits of Airbnb, such as providing short-term housing for those facing eviction, giving supplementary income for hosts, and making local businesses accessible to tourists in neighborhoods without hotels.
Yet, Heyman added, “Airbnb and some members of the local government are willing to put profits above residents.”
For Carolina, Airbnb is a human rights issue, and therefore a faith issue.
“Access to housing is paramount in terms of care and love for one’s community,” he said. “Airbnb is a matter of housing for many people, and so therefore it’s a matter of faith because it affects the quality of life for our brothers and sisters.”
Heyman couldn’t agree more.
“The very essence of Judaism and spirituality comes from being in communal and safe, dignified spaces,” she said, referencing Sukkot, a Jewish holiday celebrated by spending seven days in a temporary residence. Part of the festivities include inviting strangers to share meals and making the space welcome to all. “It’s a whole holiday around housing.”
Heyman also noted that there are several Jewish laws about being tenants, landlords, and even about not evicting people during winter.
“Because home is an essential tenant of my religion, it’s impossible not to feel drawn and connected to the issue,” she said.
If affordable housing is a matter of faith, then what is a faithful response to Airbnb?
Both Heyman and Carolina suggest that a faithful response requires nuance. It considers the ways Airbnb drains housing markets and jacks-up rent prices, but also how it has been a means of achieving income stability, fostering human connection, and practicing the biblical call to hospitality.
A faithful response entails checking to see if your Airbnb reservation will have you staying with a host at their primary residence, or crashing in your host’s second, third, or twenty-first property.
For some, being mindful about the impact of one’s spending can be a spiritual practice.
“Just thinking about the effects of the services you invest in and the origins of the products you purchase can be a really enriching way to live your life,” said Heyman. “Your response to Airbnb doesn’t have to be out of guilt or shame.”
Acting mindfully isn’t just a good idea; as people of faith, it’s also a calling.
“If we call ourselves people of faith, then our deeds must express what we profess,” said Carolina. “The end-all and be-all of the work we do and lives we live, must start and finish with love.”