Venice had its own ‘Airbnb problem’ during the Renaissance. Here’s how it solved it

Bit wet: Venice. Image: Getty.

Cities around the world have had difficulties balancing the interests of visitors with the needs of residents, as holiday rental platforms such as Airbnb have grown in popularity and size. Evidence shows that the conversion of rented homes to short-term accommodation contributes to housing shortages, raises house prices, speeds up gentrification and erodes local communities.

Cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and London have acted to curb these negative effects, imposing new taxes or limiting the number of nights that a property can be rented out. Today, Venice is one of the worst affected cities: the resident population has fallen to its lowest level in centuries and city leaders are looking for ways to mitigate the ill effects of mass tourism.

Yet the city also has a long history of managing the pros and cons of migration and tourism, and finding ways to profit from – but also integrate – foreigners. Indeed, in Renaissance Venice, a huge influx of foreigners fuelled the rise of a large informal lodging sector, which was difficult to tax and regulate and had a major impact on the urban community. Sound familiar?

Renaissance boom town

By the 16th century, Venice was the capital of its own huge empire and a major crossroads of trade and travel between mainland Europe and the Mediterranean. At the same time as painters including Titian and Giorgione were making the city a centre of Renaissance culture, the population surged from around 100,000 to nearly 170,000 in just 50 years.

Unlike today, the people drawn to Venice at the time were mostly international merchants and entrepreneurs, migrants looking for work in local industries, or refugees from war and hunger. But the first tourists also arrived in this period, such as the French writer and nobleman Montaigne, who came to explore the city’s cultural treasures. And all of these people needed somewhere to stay.

Buzzing: Vittore Carpaccio’s painting showing a miracle healing in Venice, circa 1496. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

My research has shown how hundreds of ordinary Venetians at this time saw a chance to make money on the side by renting rooms or beds. Many were women who struggled to earn a living in other ways: people like Paolina Briani, who in the 1580s rented rooms to Muslim merchants from the Ottoman empire, in her home a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco.

By opening up their homes to migrants and travellers, these accommodation providers – unlike the mostly absentee Airbnb owners of today – shared intimate spaces with people who spoke different languages and practised different religions.

Regulating the informal economy

The rapid growth of this informal economy of lodging alarmed the Venetian government. Fearing the spread both of diseases and of threatening political and religious ideas, the government was anxious to regulate and monitor the presence of foreigners in their city. They also wished to minimise competition with the city’s licensed inns – a profitable source of tax revenues.

So, a bit like today, the government made efforts to register and tax lodging housekeepers, and force them to report on the movements of their tenants. Though this regulation was very difficult to enforce because of the informal nature of many lodging enterprises, Venice’s rulers did not try to eliminate this sector altogether.

While wanting to control the movement of people, they also saw that migrants and visitors were crucial to the city’s economy and its cultural power. They wanted to welcome anyone who brought valuable goods, innovative ideas or essential manpower.

At the same time, the government took into account that ordinary Venetians – especially vulnerable and poor groups such as widows – also profited from the influx. And the money that residents made by offering lodging might be essential to their survival.


A delicate balance

To be sure, Venice’s authorities did not welcome all comers. They took aggressive action to stop “undesirables” (such as beggars and prostitutes) from entering the city. They also put more and more pressure on religious minorities to live in segregated spaces – most famously the Jewish Ghetto.

But they also saw the benefits of promoting a diverse and flexible hospitality industry that could serve the interests of locals as well as visitors. Licensed lodging houses were allowed to flourish and, alongside the inns, became a central part of the city’s emerging tourist infrastructure.

Many newcomers who came to stay in residents’ homes – where they might learn something of the local language and customs – went on to settle and integrate into the community. In its regulation of the hospitality industry, Renaissance Venice struck a delicate balance between the interests of foreigners and locals, which was crucial to the city’s economic, cultural and political strength.

Today, such a compromise appears very difficult to achieve. There are differences between then and now: in the reasons people come to the city; in the nature of competing urban needs; and in the likely solutions and policies. But it seems that cities can take a lead from Renaissance Venice, and act to promote meaningful interactions between visitors and residents; for example, as Berlin has done, by banning people from renting out entire flats on Airbnb. The Venice of 500 years ago challenges people to think about “the Airbnb problem” in a more nuanced way.

The Conversation

Rosa Salzberg, Associate Professor of Italian Renaissance History, University of Warwick.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.