The San Francisco-based company was founded in 2008, when Airbnb started offering a web portal to connect those with space to rent with travelers looking for accommodations. Today the website lists private vacation rentals in 34,000 cities and 192 countries—a search of rentals in Berlin alone serves up over 1,000 options.
In order to participate in Airbnb, users are asked to create a profile. Those with space to rent then submit information about their space and price—both things that vary wildly among the offerings—and both those offering and seeking space can be verified and reviewed in order to build trust among members. Renters can search for a place based on price, date, and location, and the search results are then displayed on a map for easy reference.
The system is fairly straightforward and has proven popular among travelers and renters alike. According to the Airbnb blog, renters are offering space through the site “to make ends meet, help pay their rent or mortgage, and share their great city with visitors from around the world.” Travelers see it as middle ground between couchsurfing and paying for a hotel. However, like any online peer-to-peer service, it should be used with caution. This website offers tips for making sure that your Airbnb experience stays positive.
Airbnb came to Germany about two years ago, and the 20,000 listings throughout the country themselves are evidence of the service's popularity. But many German politicians see Airbnb and websites like it—including 9flats, Wimdu, and housetrip—as a threat to both the hotel industry and the availability of low-rent apartments for permanent residents. The company is currently fighting illegalization in New York City, where a judge has subpoenaed data on all of the city’s Airbnb renters. The same could be the case in Berlin starting this fall. In Munich Airbnb renters can already face fines of up to 30,000 euro for illegally renting space in their homes.
But is Airbnb really keeping space out of the rental market? Politicians are worried about tenants who rent an apartment that they then turn a profit on renting to travlers through sites like Airbnb. In a popular travel destination the profits could easily exceed the apartment’s original rent each month, while keeping a local from living in the space. But according to Airbnb and Spiegel Online, that is the exception, and most Airbnb renters are offering a room in their apartment that could not be put onto the larger rental market.
The hotel industry is also concerned about the business that services like Airbnb are costing them, not to mention that hotels are forced to comply with laws and regulations that Airbnb renters do not. And of course, the government worries about taxing the system.
The city of Hamburg sees the issue differently, however, and in July 2013, private rentals like those that take place through Airbnb were legalized. "The new law replaces an old housing bill that was created in 1982—long before anyone thought of the Internet, the Sharing Economy, or Airbnb—so change was long overdue," Airbnb Head of Global Public Policy at David Hantman wrote. The controversy has been compared to the reaction of the telecommunications industry when companies like Skype and Whatsapp began offering their services for free.
In September 2013, Airbnb conducted economic impact studies in San Francisco, Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin in order to highlight the positive impact the company has on the local economy. According to the Berlin study, Airbnb contributed 100 million euro to economic activity throughout the year, with travelers who spent more money over the course of their trip than the average hotel guest.
But according to Hantman, the company’s positive impact on the community goes past the economical: “When I speak to Airbnb hosts, they often tell me how hosting helps them pay the bills and stay in their homes. Guests tell me how Airbnb has brought them to unique businesses and neighborhoods. Their stories are powerful reminders of how Airbnb helps bring people together and creates meaningful trips for travelers. And these reports show how these meaningful trips are generating economic activity and prosperity for communities around the world.”
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