Melbourne shows how Airbnb is reshaping our cities

The sharing economy at work. Image: Getty.

Infrastructure in our cities – let’s call it the hardware – remains much the same as ever. But the software – the way we use it – is transforming rapidly. One piece of that software, Airbnb, is dramatically reshaping the world’s cities.

The digital platform allows citizens to find and rent short-term accommodation from other citizens. Airbnb has the potential to rupture the traditional spatial relationship between tourist and local, making our cities more vibrant and diverse places to live in and to visit.

The question is: what opportunities and dangers does the platform present? What are the implications of repurposing existing residential infrastructure for short-term accommodation? What happens when the global “sharing economy” meets a city’s suburbs?

Lessons from an early adopter

Melbourne was an early adopter of Airbnb. It is also one of the top 10 cities for global travellers on Airbnb. What insights can be gathered from its experience?

According to Airbnb, three-quarters of listings worldwide are outside major hotel districts. Airbnb has three types of property listings: entire homes, private rooms and shared rooms.

Concentration of Airbnb entire-house rentals in Melbourne. Image: Jacqui Alexander & Tom Morgan/author provided.

Entire homes make up over half the total number of Melbourne’s metropolitan listings. Data collected in January 2016 reveals that their distribution is relatively consistent with that of hotels and licensed accommodation, which exist in large concentrations in the CBD and inner city.

Many hosts who list entire homes lease or sublet when they go away. In Australia, tenants require permission from their landlord to sublet, so there is little risk for the landlord if they follow due process. But analysis by website Inside Airbnb indicates that about 75 per cent of entire-house listings in Melbourne are available for over 90 days per year.

Hosts with multiple properties manage about a third of all the entire-house listings in Melbourne. These operators hold an average of three properties, but some have dozens. Through Airbnb, these brokers are turning existing housing infrastructure into informal, distributed hotels while saving on capital costs, overheads and wages.

Globally, the Airbnb phenomenon has been blamed for driving up rents, accelerating gentrification and displacing local residents by reducing available housing stock.

In Melbourne, the boom in high-density development in the CBD has resulted in an excess of homogeneous apartment dwellings. Bedrooms without natural light, as well as insufficient floor area, outdoor space and storage space, characterise many of these developments, rendering them effectively unlivable for long-term residents. But these properties are attractive to itinerant tenants seeking affordable inner city accommodation.

Concentration of Airbnb shared-room rentals in Melbourne. Image: Jacqui Alexander & Tom Morgan/author provided.

Shared rooms in Melbourne constitute only about 2 per cent of all listings, but they are almost exclusively confined to the CBD. Box Hill (14km east of Melbourne), and Maidstone/Braybrook (8km west of Melbourne) are secondary outlying hotspots. The majority of CBD listings are around new apartment towers near Southern Cross Station (at the western end of the CBD) and RMIT University.


A number of already small two-bedroom apartments in the Neo200, Upper West Side and QV1 towers are operating as gendered dormitories. These often sleep eight, with four to a room. Overloading these apartments creates potential fire-safety and hygiene-compliance issues.

Short-term letting via sites like Airbnb allows investors to earn up to three times the amount they’d receive in rent (the average cost to rent an entire home is $189 per night). Travellers benefit from competitive accommodation rates, cooking facilities, convenient locations and access to private pools and gymnasiums intended for residents.

Airbnb acknowledges that professional hosts with multiple listings are exploiting the so-called sharing economy, but has not yet taken steps to regulate this. Governments would do well to implement the long-awaited and much-needed minimum design standards for apartments to curb the construction of developments in the city that fail to cater for residents or which are purpose-built for the Airbnb market (a few local examples are already emerging).

Beyond the obvious need to protect the amenity of citizens, protection of the liveliness and heterogeneity of the city is essential to maintain the kind of “authentic” experience that appeals to Airbnb users in the first place. Melbourne is beginning to follow the trajectory of international cities like London where the investor market, fuelled by capital gains tax exemptions, has pushed residents further and further out. Dispersing the concentration of entire-house and private-room rental is vital.

Concentration of Airbnb private room rentals in Melbourne. Image: Jacqui Alexander & Tom Morgan/author provided.

More promising is the dispersed pattern of private rooms in Melbourne. These represent around 45 per cent of listings across the city. While private rooms are still concentrated in and around the CBD, diffuse listings across Melbourne’s middle-ring suburbs realise Airbnb’s ambition to enable access to the everyday spaces of cities.

This pattern makes sense given the mismatch between Australian house sizes, which remain the largest in the world, and changing household structures – most significantly, the decline of the nuclear family. An increase in housing diversity in the middle-ring suburbs is likely to facilitate more entire-house listings in these areas in the future.

We are also seeing evidence of Airbnb driving housing diversity. Annexed and granny-flat configurations are commonly listed in suburbs close to the Melbourne CBD like Brunswick and Caulfield. Loose-fit arrangements like these provide more flexibility to cater to both residents and visitors, and the by-product is slow but genuine “bottom-up” densification.

Government incentives for this kind of small-scale development would help to make this a viable (and, for many, welcome) alternative to densification through high-rise apartment development.

In 2015, Tourism Victoria entered into an agreement with Airbnb Melbourne to promote buzzing inner-city suburbs Fitzroy and St Kilda as “sharing economy” hotspots. But the cost of renting in these suburbs is already exorbitant. Fitzroy was named the second-most-expensive suburb in Melbourne for apartment rental in 2015.

Instead, policymakers could encourage disruption in the suburbs that would benefit both sides.

What can be done to capture local benefits?

Airbnb claims that tourists who use the platform “stay longer and spend more”. Through taxation and additional revenue from the sharing economy, governments could fund more extensive and efficient transport networks to service both locals and visitors. Extending transport infrastructure would support the intensification of distributed neighbourhoods and maximise intermingling between tourists and locals.

Airbnb rentals in Perth. Image: Jacqui Alexander/author provided.

Bottom-up densification could also be a way forward for Perth. The distribution of Airbnb accommodation towards Perth’s coastal suburbs highlights potential in this space: here, tourism-specific and local infrastructure can converge. This is an exciting prospect for a state that positions itself as a unique travel destination.

Airbnb emerges from the same cultural tendency as the pop-up shop and interim-use place activation. Built environment professionals must recognise it as an urban issue and lead with a framework for targeted, productive disruption.

Airbnb can increase the density of people within existing building stock, while dispersing the positive effects of the tourist economy. This requires more imagination from planners and designers, who first and foremost must consider the interests of individual citizens, whether they are renters or home owners.

Can Airbnb be a part of the solution of increasing urban infill without compromising a minimum standard of living?The Conversation

Jacqui Alexander is lecturer in architecture at Monash University.

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

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.