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The Economic Costs and Benefits of Airbnb

No reason for local policymakers to let Airbnb bypass tax or regulatory obligations

, KUTV

Summary

“The sharing economy” refers to a constellation of (mostly) Silicon Valley–based companies that use the internet as their primary interface with consumers as they sell or rent services. Because this term is “vague and may be a marketing strategy” (AP 2019), we refer to these firms less poetically but more precisely as “internet-based service firms” (IBSFs).

Economic policy discussions about IBSFs have become quite heated and are too often engaged at high levels of abstraction. To their proponents, IBSFs are using technological advances to bring needed innovation to stagnant sectors of the economy, increasing the quality of goods and services, and providing typical American families with more options for earning income; these features are often cited as reasons why IBSFs should be excused from the rules and regulations applying to their more traditional competitors. To skeptics, IBSFs mostly represent attempts by rich capital owners and venture capitalists to profit by flouting regulations and disguising their actions as innovation.

The debates about whether and how to regulate IBSFs often involve theories about their economic costs and benefits. This report aims to inform the debate by testing those theories. Specifically, it assesses the potential economic costs and benefits of the expansion of one of the most well-known of the IBSFs: the rental business Airbnb.

Airbnb, founded in 2008, makes money by charging guests and hosts for short-term rental stays in private homes or apartments booked through the Airbnb website. It started in prototype in San Francisco and expanded rapidly, and is now operating in hundreds of cities around the world. Airbnb is frequently depicted as a boon for travelers looking for lower-cost or nontraditional accommodations, and for homeowners looking to expand their income stream. But in many local markets, the arrival and expansion of Airbnb is raising questions about its potential negative impacts on local housing costs, quality of life in residential neighborhoods, employment quality in the hospitality industry, and local governments’ ability to enforce municipal codes and collect appropriate taxes.

In our cost-benefit analysis, we find:

  • The economic costs Airbnb imposes likely outweigh the benefits. While the introduction and expansion of Airbnb into U.S. cities and cities around the world carries large potential economic benefits and costs, the costs to renters and local jurisdictions likely exceed the benefits to travelers and property owners.
  • Airbnb might, as claimed, suppress the growth of travel accommodation costs, but these costs are not a first-order problem for American families. The largest and best-documented potential benefit of Airbnb expansion is the increased supply of travel accommodations, which could benefit travelers by making travel more affordable. There is evidence that Airbnb increases the supply of short-term travel accommodations and slightly lowers prices. But there is little evidence that the high price of travel accommodations is a pressing economic problem in the United States: The price of travel accommodations in the U.S. has not risen particularly fast in recent years, nor are travel costs a significant share of American family budgets.
  • Rising housing costs are a key problem for American families, and evidence suggests that the presence of Airbnb raises local housing costs. The largest and best-documented potential cost of Airbnb expansion is the reduced supply of housing as properties shift from serving local residents to serving Airbnb travelers, which hurts local residents by raising housing costs. There is evidence this cost is real:
    • Because housing demand is relatively inelastic (people’s demand for somewhere to live doesn’t decline when prices increase), even small changes in housing supply (like those caused by converting long-term rental properties to Airbnb units) can cause significant price increases. High-quality studies indicate that Airbnb introduction and expansion in New York City, for example, may have raised average rents by nearly $400 annually for city residents.
    • The rising cost of housing is a key problem for American families. Housing costs have risen significantly faster than overall prices (and the price of short-term travel accommodations) since 2000, and housing accounts for a significant share (more than 15 percent) of overall household consumption expenditures.
  • The potential benefit of increased tourism supporting city economies is much smaller than commonly advertised. There is little evidence that cities with an increasing supply of short-term Airbnb rental accommodations are seeing a large increase in travelers. Instead, accommodations supplied via Airbnb seem to be a nearly pure substitution for other forms of accommodation. Two surveys indicate that only 2 to 4 percent of those using Airbnb say that they would not have taken the trip were Airbnb rentals unavailable.
    • Studies claiming that Airbnb is supporting a lot of economic activity often vastly overstate the effect because they fail to account for the fact that much of this spending would have been done anyway by travelers staying in hotels or other alternative accommodations absent the Airbnb option.
  • Property owners do benefit from Airbnb’s capacity to lower the transaction costs of operating short-term rentals, but the beneficiaries are disproportionately white and high-wealth households. Wealth from property ownership is skewed, with higher-wealth and white households holding a disproportionate share of housing wealth overall—and an even more disproportionate share of housing wealth from nonprimary residences because they are much more likely to own nonprimary residential property (such as multi-unit Airbnb rentals).
  • The shift from traditional hotels to Airbnb lodging leads to less-reliable tax payments to cities. Several large American cities with a large Airbnb presence rely heavily on lodging taxes. Airbnb has largely blocked the ability of these cities to transparently collect lodging taxes on Airbnb rentals that are equivalent to lodging taxes on hotel rooms. One study found that the voluntary agreements Airbnb has struck with state and local governments “[undermine] tax fairness, transparency, and the rule of law.”
  • City residents likely suffer when Airbnb circumvents zoning laws that ban lodging businesses from residential neighborhoods. The status quo of zoning regulations in cities reflects a broad presumption that short-term travelers likely impose greater externalities on long-term residents than do other long-term residents. Externalities are economic costs that are borne by people not directly engaged in a transaction. In the case of neighbors on a street with short-term renters, externalities include noise and stress on neighborhood infrastructure like trash pickup. These externalities are why hotels are clustered away from residential areas. Many Airbnb rental units are in violation of local zoning regulations, and there is the strong possibility that these units are indeed imposing large costs on neighbors.
  • Because Airbnb is clearly a business competing with hotel lodging, it should be subject to the same taxation regime as hotels. In regard to zoning regulations, there is no empirical evidence that the net benefits of Airbnb introduction and expansion are so large that policymakers should reverse long-standing regulatory decisions simply to accommodate the rise of a single company.

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EPI is an independent, nonprofit think tank that researches the impact of economic trends and policies on working people in the United States. EPI’s research helps policymakers, opinion leaders, advocates, journalists, and the public understand the bread-and-butter issues affecting ordinary Americans.