Can Airbnb help Rio's poorest residents benefit from the Olympics?

Look at this and tell me you don't want to go there. Image: Getty.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists are flocking to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games. In order to meet the shortage of hotel accommodation, the city has made the online rental platform Airbnb an official partner for the games. The company now lists 25,000 units in Rio – a massive rise from only 900 in 2012.

With Brazil’s economy in the doldrums, some have praised the platform as a way for Cariocas – residents of Rio  to make extra money during the games. Nowhere would this be more welcome than in Rio’s favelas – neighbourhoods that are home to some of the city’s poorest inhabitants.

From the beachfront neighbourhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, one can easily spot favelas such as Babilonia or Vidigal, perched on the steep hills surrounding Rio’s South Zone. Favelas are often located close to more affluent areas and are home to many labourers, security guards, cooks, drivers and nannies, who are employed by their better-off neighbours.

The favelas house up to a quarter of Rio’s population – they are still considered no-go areas by some, and access to public services and social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals is still limited. For decades these neighbourhoods were hidden from official maps of the city – a reflection of the neglect they received from the authorities.

Slum tourism

These neighbourhoods have long held a fascination for visitors to Rio and, since the early 1990s, tourists have ventured into some of the favelas in the South Zone on walking tours. Over the years, this trend has increased and today it is estimated that at least 50,000 visitors go on tours in Rio’s favelas each year.

On tour. Image: Daytours4u/Flickr/creative commons.

Favela tourism has also diversified; increasingly, visitors are seeking out favelas for their nightlife and markets – and sometimes also to find accommodation. Some hostels have been operating in favelas for well over a decade. But now online rental platforms (ORPs) such as Airbnb have given residents of the favelas the chance to extend their hospitality personally by renting out their own rooms or apartments to tourists.

This development comes at a time when cities across the world are debating the significance of ORPs. Airbnb and similar ORPs are part of what their proponents call “the sharing economy”. According to research conducted by Airbnb, ORPs can allow people on modest incomes to generate some extra income.

A sharing economy?

But some accuse providers such as Airbnb of accelerating gentrification by increasing the price of real estate. In particular, critics point out that OPRs encourage the transformation of whole apartment houses into permanent short-term rental flats by commercial providers, because such arrangements are more profitable than long-term tenancies.

In this way, ORPs reduce the availability of affordable housing in cities such as New York, Berlin or Paris, according to its critics.

In New York City – one the world’s largest ORP markets – the number of rooms and flats offered on Airbnb alone has now reached around 35,000. In response, lawmakers in New York State have recently approved new legislation, which bans the renting of whole apartments for periods less than one month, in order to stop short-term rentals.

In Berlin, a similar law came into effect in May 2016, which requires everyone who wants to rent out their whole apartment to get a commercial licence from the city council.

The view from Rio

So far, ORPs have attracted little controversy in Rio de Janeiro. Unlike in New York or Berlin, there has been no comprehensive research on the effect of ORPs on the housing market, particularly in favelas. So, for the time being, Airbnb’s claim that ORPs allow Rio’s residents to make ends meet in a situation of economic uncertainty goes unchallenged.

Tourists on the terrace. Image: Marcelo Sayão/EPA.

Such effects would clearly be welcome in favelas, but from what we know so far, they seem rather unlikely. Only two favelas – Vidigal and Rocinha – are listed on AirBnb as neighbourhoods. There are a number of additional listings in smaller favelas, often with pre-existing tourism infrastructure.

There are now about 250 listings on Airbnb in favelas across the city – which makes up just 1 per cent of the overall listings for Rio de Janeiro. It seems probable that the low uptake of Airbnb is caused by the lack of spare space in the favelas.

There is a clear concentration of Airbnb favela listings in Vidigal, which has around 180 ads. Yet many of these are provided by brokers, not by individuals – something we can tell by the fact that they are offering multiple units. Some places are even offered under company names – another indication that these operations are commercial by nature.

Faced with the expansion of ORPs, there seems to be a growing consensus between many cities that intelligent regulation is needed to limit or prevent their negative impacts. And Rio is no exception: Vidigal – an area which has long been subject to gang violence and police “pacification” interventions – is already facing significant pressures from gentrification. Without proper regulation, ORPs are likely to intensify gentrification and displacement in favelas, rather than provide income support for Rio’s poorest residents.The Conversation

Fabian Frenzel is lecturer in the political economy of organisation at the University of Leicester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.