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It started as such a lovely idea about 15 years ago: Aided by technology, people could occasionally rent out a room or their whole place as a way to earn a few bucks, maybe help to pay down the mortgage, subsidize their rent or fill Junior’s empty room while he’s away at college.
Travellers could stay in a homey, authentic place to “live like a local” for a short period while exploring a new destination.
This quaint concept was quickly corrupted by greed and mass tourism. The concept of regular folks letting out their homes has metastasized into vast swathes of residential housing being gobbled up by profit-hungry commercial operators running de facto hotels and basically wrecking it for everyone.
Around the world, cities and countries are trying to rein in short-term rentals or STRs, slapping them with restrictions and outright bans.
I say bravo. Short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb, VRBO and Booking.com are being fingered as a major contributor to the affordable housing crisis. They push out long-term renters, hollow out communities and enrage residents who endure a constant stream of noisy strangers in their buildings and neighbourhoods.
That said, I confess to being part of the problem. While I’ve never actually stayed in an Airbnb, I’ve occasionally used VRBO over the years. Increasingly, though, I’m asking myself: Can someone who loves to travel use a short-term rental ethically?
The short answer is maybe. I offer examples of when it might be possible and when it probably isn’t a good idea.
For me, a short-term rental is mostly about the kitchen. While some people love hotels and dining out, the blandness of most hotel rooms leaves me cold, as does a steady and expensive diet of restaurant meals. I love to cook and one of my greatest pleasures is to do so after shopping in local markets when I travel.
One of our best short-term stays, pre-COVID, was 10 nights spent at a Budapest apartment owned by a Hungarian ex-pat. He’d bought small apartments for each of his three American-born daughters to help them stay connected with their roots. The one we rented was cozy, kitted out with books, pictures and decent kitchen tools, and provisioned with wine, coffee, bread and cold cuts. Most days we trawled Budapest’s beautiful Great Market Hall, built in 1897, finding treasures like glossy red peppers and fat yellow chickens to make feasts.
We were quiet guests who watered the geraniums on the flat’s balcony. Our only “party” consisted of coffee and pastries for the handful of guests who’d attended my Hungarian father-in-law’s funeral mass at the 18th-century church across the street. He’d died a year earlier in Calgary and we’d brought his ashes to the Old Country to be interred in the church’s crypt alongside his parents.
The rental apartment made this intimate experience perfect. Were we displacing anyone from a home? Not exactly. True, these apartments were owned by people who didn’t always live there, but I don’t think it’s wrong to opt for a longer stay at a place found through friends or family.
Likewise, six of us rented a house in a seaside Italian town for four days in October. Beach season was mostly over, with only a handful of shops and cafes open for business. Renting the house from the son of the family who owned it likely wasn’t pushing anyone out because the resort town was largely vacant.
Resort towns, built more for recreation than daily living, are a bit different. Guests coming and going have long been part of life in beach towns, cottage country and ski resorts. That’s the approach the Spanish island of Mallorca has taken — banning short-term rentals in apartment buildings but allowing them in more isolated villas and single-family houses where residents are less impacted.
Following that thinking, spending two nights at a short-term rental in Venice a few years ago wasn’t the best choice. A tout led us through the historic centre to an apartment that was once someone’s elegant home, now devoid of personality. (She also urged us to have dinner at a nearby restaurant, a recommendation obviously paid for because the food was dismal.)
Later, when we went to pick up a few breakfast items, I spotted the aggrieved look on a local’s face as she struggled to buy groceries in a shop packed with us tourists. In Venice, a city so suffocated by over-tourism that there are now fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, I connected the dots: I was directly contributing to the loss of affordable housing. In this instance, for such a brief stay, we belonged in a tax-paying commercial hotel, not in someone’s once-loved flat.
Likewise, a recent one-night stay in a homey apartment in Rome was maybe a poor choice. As in many other cities around the world, including Calgary, the Eternal City is facing a housing shortage, with sharply rising rents affecting students and lower-income residents, thanks in part to the spread of short-term rentals.
The more I learn, the harder it is to ignore the damaging effects of STRs. In an ideal world, all tourist accommodations would be registered, licensed and appropriately taxed by government. But until regulatory frameworks designed to protect residential housing stock are in place and enforced, we, the travelling public, need to govern ourselves. For me, that means carefully choosing short-term rentals where my actions aren’t displacing locals: finding connections through family or friends; opting for houses, not apartments, ideally in resort areas; using regulated hotels and B&Bs for brief overnights so I’m not part of the churn of strangers; and being quiet and respectful.