Australian researchers to investigate Airbnb’s effect on housing affordability

Image: Bailey Mahon
Image: Bailey Mahon

Airbnb has raised the hackles of strata owners who say the platform has filled their buildings with unfamiliar faces and parties. It has also been named a key component of anti-tourist sentiment sweeping across Europe. But whether it has had an effect on housing affordability is still an ongoing debate.

While many speculate the removal of entire apartments from the rental market for short-term letting reduces the available stock and pushes up prices, there is a gamut of drivers affecting affordability, and it has been difficult to isolate an effect. A lack of reliable data released by Airbnb compounds the problem.

Now new research being conducted by the University of NSW and Swinburne University is hoping to better clarify the relationship between short-term letting and housing affordability.

According to UNSW City Futures Research Centre research lecturer Dr Laura Crommelin, there is currently not enough information to determine how Airbnb intersects with housing affordability in Australia.

The research is calling on Sydney and Melbourne Airbnb hosts that either let out entire homes, or just rooms, to get involved in those studies.

“Those two uses are potentially very different in terms of their impact on housing affordability,” Dr Crommelin said.

“The first group takes a house out of the market; the second is more a case of a space that may or may not have been rented out if it wasn’t for Airbnb.”

The majority of Airbnb listings in Australia’s two largest cities are for entire apartments, according to data from open source data activist project Inside Airbnb. For Sydney, 61.5 per cent of the 32,830 listings are for entire dwellings, and an almost identical figure for Melbourne’s 20,406 listings.

Dr Crommelin said the research would delve into Airbnb users’ habits and drivers for using the platform in order to better understand interactions with affordability.

“We want to find out, for example, if spare rooms were previously rented to flatmates. Would the owners of large homes have downsized if they hadn’t listed spare rooms on Airbnb? And are people adding space to their homes or building granny flats to take advantage of Airbnb’s popularity?

“By surveying and interviewing hosts, we hope to better inform policy makers who might want to regulate the short-term rental market.”

She said Airbnb had told a NSW Parliamentary inquiry that its platform allowed hosts to become ambassadors for their communities while earning extra income to help make ends meet, and that the research wanted to “independently test those claims”.

The creator of Inside Airbnb Murray Cox this week spoke at a University of Sydney event on data activism and urban displacement. He revealed that Airbnb had previously “misled” the public on key facts about the platform, and it was being used as a tool of “racial gentrification” in New York City.

A report released this year by McGill University estimated that Airbnb had removed up to 13,500 units of housing from the long-term rental market of New York City, causing median rents to rise by 1.4 per cent over the last three years – a $380 increase for the median NYC tenant, and up to $700 in some Manhattan neighbourhoods.

At the University of Sydney event, School of Architecture, Design & Planning Professor Nicole Gurran said whether short-term letting had an effect on affordability may be dependant on a particular housing market.

“Our work would suggest that online listings are only a housing market problem in constrained housing markets,” she said, which should inform any regulatory response.

The UNSW/Swinburne project has received funding from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), and is calling for participants to sign up here.

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