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The sharing-the-pain economy: The Uber and Airbnb ground war in cities

August 12th, 2015 · 68 Comments

I’m currently staying at an Airbnb-type apartment in the Mission district in San Francisco, ground zero (as I’ve discovered since I booked it) of current North American angst over the transformation of former working-class neighbourhoods into tourist parks. In June, I stayed in an Airbnb in Marais, another hot district, where one disgruntled resident had hung a banner outside his apartment: “Non au resto-toit.”

Do I feel guilty? Somewhat, although I try to allay it by not staying at places that appear to be run by agencies, only at real apartments where the owners are out of town temporarily. (Though I sometimes misjudge.)

I’m not a regular Über user. I did go down and experiment with it in Seattle for the purposes of the story I’m linking to here, but have been unsuccessful in getting anyone to pick me up here in San Francisco. I see the cars swarming around on the map, but they never stop for me. Perhaps, like Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, I’ve achieved a bad rating (maybe my article helped with that?) or maybe they just didn’t like the places I was going.

In spite of that, I am a part of this confused new alleged sharing economy, which is not the old tool libraries or communal farms of old, but more about monetizing the assets that middle-class people have and want to maintain, using the magic of a technology broker.

Intellectually, I recognize the problems. But as a traveller, I’m addicted to the way home-sharing agencies allow me to experience travel a different way. (And that all started before Airbnb. I began, as did so many people, with straight-up home exchanges through HomeLink 20 years ago. I moved on to renting apartments through all the little rental agencies that proliferated before Airbnb stomped onto the scene. Then it was VRBO. And now Airbnb, which I have come to like because the listings are quirkier and more often in real homes, not agency-furnished “vacation rentals.”)

A lot of us are in that boat. So are city governments, which are dealing with residents and businesses who love and hate Airbnb, love and hate Uber.

I got a chance to look at the whole issue in depth (thank you Matt O’Grady at BCBusiness for this great assignment), although it was a bit crazy-making as new information and new developments kept popping up every day. (Like Karen Sawatzky’s great initial study on Airbnb in Vancouver.)

Long after I’d filed my piece, I was heading for the airport in Paris, where my taxi driver told me he’d just been part of the strike over Uber the last four days. “L’economie sauvage,” he said with disgust, along with a lot of other explanations about why Uber was so bad for everyone. (The company withdrew from the Paris market shortly thereafter.) And I could see why he felt so strongly. Clearly the taxi business had done well by him. He talked about taking his family on ski trips in the Alps, to a resort in Valencia for the summer — his job was helping support a pretty middle-class life.

This is an evolving story. I keep waiting for the new chapters. In the meantime, here is where we were at in the summer of 2015.



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