Karla Costello saw the headlines.
More than 50,000 Queenslanders waiting in the social housing register. A Brisbane real estate agency urging landlords to raise rents by more than double the inflation rate. State premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, hosts a housing summit in an effort to resolve a shortage of residential properties that shows no signs of abating.
Costello appreciates how lucky she is to have a roof over her head. She sleeps even better at night knowing that her Gold Coast real estate investment is no longer a transit lounge for vacationers.
“It was very difficult to look at our empty apartment when we had no guests,” he says of the two-bedroom property on the Miami beach that he has rented through Airbnb for more than two years.
“I am a person who makes decisions every day about how my actions as an individual affect the world and I’m not sure it has been a great achievement for our local community. I also asked my partner if we could let the homeless man who lived on the Esplanade stay there on the nights it wasn’t booked.
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Costello and his partner no longer need these discussions.
After returning their property to the long-term rental market, they were spared the internal conflict that she knows would result from hearing this week the Queensland government announce it would launch an investigation into how the short-term rental market is affecting the housing of the crisis state.
It came after the Queensland Greens introduced a bill that taxed short-stay owners with a 5% annual levy on the value of their property. Meanwhile, Brisbane city council has raised rates for short-term accommodations by 50%, asking residents to “dob-in” neighbors suspected of advertising on platforms such as Airbnb and Stayz.
A lot of questions have been asked about short-term rentals lately, but there is another that is rarely raised in a society like ours: Is it ethical to rent your property on Airbnb during a housing crisis?
The individual against society
As the executive director of The Ethics Center, Dr. Simon Longstaff is well qualified to look at the short-term rental phenomenon through an ethical lens.
Though wary of taking the Guardian into a “philosophical rabbit hole”, he says that one cannot reflect on the matter without looking at the theories of Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher considered the father of capitalism for his belief in the search for personal interest.
“So often, when we have these conversations about the individual versus society, people tend to go back to Smith and say it’s about capitalism and self-interest without realizing that there was always a qualification for that story,” Longstaff says.
“Smith said the pursuit of self-interest was legitimate, not because it made one or two people better, but because it would ultimately make us all feel better.
“He also spoke of the virtues of reciprocity and sympathy, which he believes should be the basis of the way a company operates …
“When looking at the issue of affordable housing, it could be said that the market’s pursuit of self-interest is not delivering what it should have.”
As a sociologist at the University of Tasmania, Professor Keith Jacobs has had a front row seat in the Airbnb boom.
In the words of a report commissioned by Shelter Tasmania, Hobart has been “overloaded” with short-term rentals which now account for 5.65% of the residential rental market. Almost half (47%) of these short-stay properties were previously occupied by long-term tenants.
But after spending more than 30 years researching housing policy, prof. Jacobs says the ethical question should be addressed to governments and businesses rather than property owners.
“Individual choices matter, they are important, but in themselves they will not lead to any significant changes,” he says.
“Individuals who choose not to use Airbnb due to housing shortages are great, but the big decision that needs to be made is for governments to discourage owners from such practices.
“The Airbnb issue is not the cause of the housing crisis. It is a symptom, a manifestation of underlying inequality and of the governments that allow wealthy Australians to commodify housing ”.
Longstaff, however, says it’s reasonable for people to consult their conscience when deciding whether to “be on Airbnb or not on Airbnb.”
“It’s difficult because the moment you start talking about removing an advantage that people currently enjoy, you immediately trigger an adverse reaction,” says Longstaff. “When you begin to feel pain, ask yourself ‘Do I have any obligations towards my fellow citizens?’.
Related: Rent is skyrocketing in Australia. Is Airbnb responsible for the price increase?
“What are the things you need to have a basic standard of living in a country like Australia? Shelter is definitely one of them.
“When you think about what you do with your property, you might be thinking, ‘Am I depriving someone of the need to give another person a luxury and is that a reasonable thing to do?'”
A question of ethics ‘not particularly useful’
When Guardian Australia reached out to Airbnb for comment, the company directed us to a statement on its website proposing “a series of measures that will help build stronger communities, promote sustainable tourism growth, and provide governments across the globe. Australia tools to help address important issues such as accessibility and comfort of housing ”.
“Accessibility of housing is a difficult and complicated issue,” says Susan Wheeldon, Airbnb country manager for Australia.
“The causes vary from place to place, with legacy factors often predating Airbnb’s founding by decades.
“We are also seeing the effects of increased housing pressure on our platform, with more people turning to hosting as a way to combat rising cost of living and rising mortgage payments.”
Eacham Curry, a senior director of Expedia Group, owner of Stayz, says that questioning the ethics of short-term rental owners “isn’t particularly helpful.”
“Saying something is unethical doesn’t characterize the situation,” he says. “I might as well [raise] the economic advantage that we know short term rent brings to Australia and the money it brings to local communities, particularly where there are no traditional hotels but are otherwise tourism hot spots.
“The homes we list tend to be priced higher and in places where, even if they were leased out on a long-term basis, they wouldn’t end up being part of the affordable housing mix.”
A question not only for the hosts
Fiona Caniglia has no doubts that the short-term rental market is having a negative impact on the housing supply.
“When [Airbnb] started to emerge, I remember thinking these were huge incentives for people to take their homes out of the long-term private rental market, ”says Q Shelter’s executive director.
“It’s generally a huge disruption to the way the housing market was supposed to work, which was to help people get a home.”
And what about the ethical question? It might not just be one for owners, but short-term vacationers as well.
“The existence of these markets is because there is a demand for this type of product,” says Caniglia. “It is time for the whole community to think deeply enough about our values as a society and the things we put first …
“Like any ethical way we spend our money on helping someone else, it’s wonderful when people can think about it thoughtfully and within an ethical framework.”
Longstaff adds: “I think a lot of people look at this conversation and say ‘You are depriving me of the opportunity to thrive – I have invested my money, I have risked and I want to get the maximum return on my investment.’
“But asking the ethical question does not necessarily mean that they have to wear a sackcloth and feel much worse … the return on investment [on long-term rentals] it is still reasonable “.
Back on the Gold Coast, Costello points out that ethics alone didn’t inspire her decision to swap Airbnb guests for permanent tenants. There were other factors at play – one of which, in hindsight, embodies why she wouldn’t feel comfortable returning to the short-term rental market.
“Initially we were the only Airbnbs in our condo and one of the very few in our area, but now the market is flooded with it,” he says. “There is no guarantee that you will make significant returns on Airbnb and when you weigh it to contribute to the housing crisis, I’m not sure it’s worth it.”