AirBnB dependency: The women who rely on hosting to survive in London
With a cost-of-living and housing crisis, women are turning to the rental platform to make ends meet, as shown in new research by Dr George Maier and ReMAP member Dr Kate Gilchrist. This post by Kate Gilchrist draws on their recent article for Gender, Work & Organisation.
In recent years, much policy and research into AirBnB has critiqued of its role in the gentrification of neighbourhoods. Evidence suggests that AirBnB has increased housing costs alongside a problematic record in relation to racism among hosts on the platform. However, while women form a 61 percent majority of AirBnB hosts in the UK, little research has examined the gendered dimensions of the platform. Our new research explores the experiences of women in London who rely on the platform to meet their ever-growing housing costs. In speaking to live-in hosts, we found many women, especially older women living alone and those with disabilities, were reliant on the income they received from hosting space within their own flats. In some cases, women were hosting their own bed while sleeping on sofa beds or inflatable mattresses. We understand ‘disability’ based on the social model, which defines it as the disadvantage or discrimination which arises from social, economic and environmental barriers to equal treatment, based on an individual’s physical and/or mental impairment (Burchardt, 2004) Such an approach calls for adjustments at the societal level rather than individual level and does not see this as justification for exclusion from participating in the labour market.
Many of the women in our study were in full time work yet relied on this type of hosting to meet their rent or mortgage payments each month. They often referred to AirBnB as a lifeline within a city that is becoming increasingly unaffordable for them. For these women, AirBnB was a tool of resistance to gentrification. We do not make claims that these experiences are representative of the circumstances for a majority of hosts, there are certainly many in more economically privileged situations, but rather, we explore these instances from an intersectional perspective to help gain a better understanding of women’s dependency on the platform.
Hosting as a response to struggles in the productive economy
Previous research has indicated women are much more likely to be in precarious lower-income, part-time jobs and burdened with additional care responsibilities or excluded from the workplace completely. At the same time, AirBnB’s figures show that women are more likely than men to be hosting on the platform. For many of the women in our study, often single and living alone, the high costs of housing in London made rent or mortgage payments difficult to manage – forcing them to turn to hosting as a way of meeting their bills. This problem becomes even further pronounced as the cost of housing outpaces incomes in the city.
Our study identified two groups of women who utilised AirBnB to cover their housing expenses:
- Women who were entirely excluded from traditional labour markets: in our sample we spoke to women whose disabilities led to them being pushed out of traditional workplaces.
- Women who lived alone and were unable to meet their housing expenses on the income available within the productive economy. This was often due to a mismatch between their income and the cost of living in London. This group also included women who had caring responsibilities that reduced the number of hours that they were available to work each week.
With respect to the first group, we spoke to several women with long-term health conditions that prevented them from being employed in the traditional labour market. They said that renting out space within their property was their only remaining way to earn income independently. While this does constitute a form of rentier income-seeking, it is not necessarily gentrifying in the way other forms of rentier activity on AirBnB have been. Instead, it offers opportunities for disabled women who own property, or who have available space in their rented properties, to survive after exclusion from traditional labour markets. The flexibility of AirBnB provides a way for disabled women who own property to support themselves at home. There is therefore a need to consider how AirBnB is being utilised by some disabled women to alleviate the socio-economic inequalities they face.
For many women we spoke to, an economic dependency on the platform forced them to expose themselves to highly gendered risks. Those we interviewed routinely mentioned concern around sexual harassment or assault. While less economically dependent hosts talked about how they responded to such concerns by carefully selecting who they let into their home (at times, excluding male guests), working class hosts were unable to do so due to their dependency on income from AirBnB. One of the working-class women we interviewed rents a one-bedroomed apartment in London and illegally sublets out her bedroom while she sleeps on the sofa. She described the experience as uncomfortable — feeling a significant invasion of privacy and levels of confrontation from guests that made hosting difficult. She was continuing to host — compelled to sublet her own bed — because she felt that she had no other choice.
Such gendered risk is deepened through intersections with age. Older single female hosts felt a greater sense of physical vulnerability. Indeed disability and age intersect further to place elderly women who are physically impaired at an even greater risk of sexual assault. Therefore, many of the women in this study were forced to trade a sense of personal safety in order to subsist economically.
Distinguishing live-in hosts from whole-property landlords
However some of the women in the study enjoyed hosting people in their homes – they didn’t want to stop. This was especially true for many of the older women who lived alone – they described the joy of hosting and meeting new people, something which increasingly is being lost within a profit/and or subsistence-based use of the platform. Several the hosts we spoke to did not start out hosting for AirBnB, but rather, on other home sharing platforms that were acquired over a number of years during AirBnB’s expansion. Many were initially sceptical about using the AirBnB platform, feeling it did not represent what they were trying to do, but felt forced to join as it holds such a dominant position in the market.
Many of the women we interviewed spoke out against the multi-property AirBnB hosts who buy up properties to list on the platform. Instead, they saw themselves as being part of (what they described as) the platform’s original ethos – people sharing their own living space. They wanted policymakers to separate their use of the platform from the multi-property hosts. Our research presents a complicated picture of (gendered) housing inequalities and raises complex questions over how we regulate platforms to support London’s communities.
Conclusions: The problem and how we fix it
While economically privileged women are able to succeed on AirBnB, especially those with the right types of cultural capital, others in this study were not as successful, or were excluded from hosting on the platform all together. AirBnB appears to offer a refuge to isolated and disabled middle-class women, but this benefit is deeply dependent upon their class position. Working class women in London are often in an economic position where they feel forced to host, experiencing more risks and negative experiences than middle-class hosts.
There are wider issues here: the housing affordability crisis in London is forcing some of the women we spoke to into an arrangement that makes them concerned for their personal and financial safety. There needs to be real socio-economic safety nets to stop women being forced to host, particularly for those with disabilities, such as increased benefits, more support for rising fuel costs, and a 50%, rather than 25% discount on council tax for single person households. The priority for the government and policymakers should be genuinely affordable housing in London, sub-letting rights for renters, better tax breaks for live-in hosts, or private rent caps – but until that happens, we need to recognise the women who have come to rely on AirBnB in order to meet their rent/mortgage payments. Regulation needs to take this into consideration.