A group of activists is launching an alternative platform for person-to-person vacation rentals called FairBnB.
The new platform plans to compete with Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, while promoting community-powered tourism.
At the moment, FairBnB is owned and run by a worker co-op with eight members including coders, researchers and designers. One of them is Sito Veracruz, a 31-year old with a background in law and urban planning based in Amsterdam. He says the project was born out of the belief that vacation rental is an activity that needs to be properly regulated.
“The idea came up within an advocacy group, Fair City, a federation of local neighbourhood associations, working on social housing and other issues. One of the working groups was about vacation rent.”
Looking at concerns over existing platforms regarding data transparency and regulatory compliance, the team decided to set up their own platform, and settled on the co-op model as best suited to their ethos.
After working on the platform for the past four years, the group intends to launch it in May, in five European cities – Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bologna, Valencia and Venice.
Mr Veracruz says there are several hundred hosts signed up to the project. “This is a new approach and there’s a lot of work to do, but we are very happy with how it’s going.”
Short-term rentals have been criticised for their impact on affordable housing stock. In Amsterdam they are limited to 60 days a year while in Barcelona they require licensing and no new licences are being issued to keep the long-term supply of property available to local people.
In recent years, Airbnb has found itself in disputes with municipal authorities around the world over tax requirements, rules enforcement or the advertising of unlicensed properties.
To avoid such issues, FairBnB says it will verify that every single host is legally allowed to rent out his or her space according to local law.
“We’re working with communities and the municipalities on these issues,” says Mr Veracruz.
“We want people to be part of the business. We are born as a reaction to what is happening in rentals; we want our users to know we are committed to legality, we want to apply regulations to the platform and we take this into consideration when accepting a host.”
The FairBnB team has several experts on tourism data and legislation, he adds. “We’re aware of restrictions in each city and we’re working with them – we want to stay up to date with regulations so we can apply them and help cities regulate in the proper way.”
The co-op is also committing to opening data and compliance with local and regional legislation and pledges to pay taxes at local level. The platform will have a strict one host, one home policy to prevent any users from listing multiple properties – a measure already adopted by Airbnb in certain cities in response to local rules.
FairBnB is also keen to mitigate some of the effects of tourism and the associated gentrification on cities.
“We can be a tool against gentrification if used properly,” says Mr Veracruz, “but citizens and governments are the ones who can tackle it.
“Local cities can say they if don’t want rentals or want to limit them. It’s not in our hands – we can support these measures but it’s really down to the government.
“I am an urban planner by background so I understand the effects of vacation rent in neighbourhoods; I understand that municipalities need to set limits, and as a platform we will encourage cities to set plans and be a part of that – we are part of an anti-gentrification consortium in Valencia.”
FairBnB also wants to reinvest 50% of profits in social projects that counter the negative effects the industry. Locals will vote to support projects like food co-ops, playgrounds, green projects or community cafés.
It also plans to open membership of the co-op to other stakeholders, such as hosts, guests, local business owners and neighbours to ensure that everyone has a say in how it is run.
But both these initiatives are made difficult by existing co-op law, says Mr Veracruz. “In Italy we can’t, as a co-op, donate 50% of each commission to local social cause. You can from a foundation or limited company, but for co-ops it is very difficult. I’m annoyed about this.
“In Italy and Spain, the regulation of co-ops is also difficult. You can’t create a multi-stakeholder from scratch. We are now a worker co-op – it’s the easiest structure we could find. We would like others to come in – hosts, neighbours etc – but unfortunately that will be tricky.
“The co-op sector is big and hyper-bureaucratised. It makes it hard to proceed as a co-op –it would have been easier to proceed as a limited company and that is unacceptable. Ideologically it’s important and crucial for us; we don’t regret it but we want to improve it.”
Differences in national co-op law also mean that all operations across Europe are registered in Bologna, Italy, and FairBnB is not registered as a European Co-operative Society, he adds.
Those interested in the platform can pre-register their accommodation or project at fairbnb.coop.