Killing Giants

What regulating Airbnb can teach us about contesting platform capitalism

Giants walk among us. Unlike the giants of yore, leviathans breaching the raging sea or towering behemoths of glass and steel, today’s giants are unfathomable and yet strangely intimate. Our giants are technology platforms.

The big five — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft — are being joined by newer fledglings: Airbnb, Uber, and Lime among others. They reshape the world in their image while jolting us awake, sharing our commute, helping us with our work, bringing us things from the store, and lying beside us as we doze. As they reshape our lives, they seem untouchable. You can boycott Facebook or Uber, but as you move about the world, you are perpetually confronted by their presence. They are too massive to ignore, too powerful for an individual to fight alone. If Google or Amazon offer to headquarter in your town, is there any alternative but to prostrate yourself and give tribute of labor, space, and tax breaks lest they change their minds?

In the rush to frame platforms as behemoths, we risk losing track of the material conditions that undergird their existence

Political theorist Nick Srnicek theorizes the rise of platform giants in Platform Capitalism, arguing that they have become the backbone of the global economy, key avenues for capital investment and growth in the wake of the earlier popped tech bubble of the 1990s and the 2008 financial crash. In the wake of these financial crises, he explains, Western governments adopted a loose monetary policy that led to lower corporate yields and surging stock markets. This, in turn, led investors to seek higher yields by investing in risky assets in the form of new platform companies. The glut of free-flowing investment cash was matched by broader corporate tax evasion, an austerity state, and low employment, which makes workers more likely to labor in exploitative conditions and seek ways to buttress their income through unconventional means, like offering services through platforms.

These factors combined to create an environment where powerful tech companies kept their wealth offshore while new platforms were flush with investment capital. Governments and workers in need of funds looked to these resource-rich corporations for help in creating jobs and funding government programs. Tech became giant, a salvific power against financial woes. In the face of this behemoth, it could seem impossible to fight back, lest one face tech’s wrath in court or get passed over for its rewards. The only way to challenge tech, it seems, would be to turn the tide of global capital flows against them — to make them manageable in scale for governments and workers to face again.

Yet in the rush to frame platforms as behemoths, we risk losing track of the material conditions that undergird their existence. It is imperative to pay attention to the social relations that permit their extraction of value — the boring, rote conversations in stuffy rooms, the long discussions of zoning codes and tax revenue, the politics and contingencies that allow platforms to exist. Capital must reckon with bureaucracies, laws and regulations, local resistances, and the powers that make its circulation possible. These are spaces where one can begin to challenge the giant, to find points of vulnerability that loosen the giant’s grasp on our lives.

Airbnb is one such giant. Alongside similar, smaller companies like Flipkey and VRBO, it has reinvigorated the short-term rental market as part of the online platform economy. Historically, the short-term rental market was composed of boarding houses and rooming houses for workers and travelers as well as single-room-occupancy hotels for students, seasonal workers, and single tenants who would share a kitchen, toilets, and other forms of common space with one another. In the mid-1900s, progressive moral reformers, urban planners, and city health officials worked to shut down these rental options in favor of monthly-rental apartments and single-family homes. These reformers argued that boarding and hotel living was unsanitary, immoral, and riddled with crime. At the same time, real estate developers used fast-track foreclosure, public health scares, and fears of race and class mixture to buy single-room-occupancy hotels and boarding houses at a low price, evict residents, and sell them high for single-family and multi-family unit development. While boarding houses, rooming houses, and single-room occupancy hotels still exist today, they are difficult to open and operate. They require an extended process of licensure and government inspections, and are subject to other regulations limiting what kind of tenants can stay, where the property can be built, and the length, quality, and safety of the stay.

Unlike short-term rentals of the past, these platforms do not offer housing for working class people or ease conditions of housing scarcity

The new short-term rental platforms, however, don’t fit into the regulatory infrastructure devised for hotels, single-room occupancy hotels, boarding houses, and rooming houses. Unlike the short-term rental providers of the past, they do not offer housing for working class people and “transients” or ease contemporary conditions of housing scarcity. Instead, the new platforms have positioned themselves as sharing platforms that allow travelers to connect with welcoming people from around the world — shifting the property from a housing rental to a temporary travel rental. What this utopian sharing economy rhetoric masks is that, by favoring travelers over permanent residents, platforms create greater potential for displacement. New short-term rentals enable landlords, homeowners, and even lease holders to exploit “rent gaps”: the opportunity to make more from a property by renting it by the day to tourists and business travelers rather than by the month to locals. Research by grassroots activists in D.C. and San Francisco, geographers, lawyers, urban planners, and economists have shown how this short-term rental rent gap is partly responsible for rising rents and evictions of low-income tenants.

How, then, does one fight back against the platforms laying ruin to the city’s housing? Srnicek offers three models for action against platform capitalism: replacing private platforms with public utilities, developing platforms that are democratically run and cooperatively owned by their users, and empowering the state to regulate private platforms. With respect to Airbnb, and the short-term rental market it has facilitated, we can see examples of these three responses. Recent proposals for states to create registries of housing stock — which would demarcate which properties are rentable, by whom, and by how many people — gesture toward the public utility option, as they would effectively make these agencies online brokers. And Fairbnb.coop, an alternative to Airbnb, is an example of the second approach: It’s a cooperative platform committed to data transparency, community donations, and a one-host-per-home policy, which keeps short-term rentals small-scale.

But to think of an ethical platform for home sharing, it is not enough to enact Airbnb with different ethics. To fight Airbnb demands a reckoning with the historical processes that produced the housing crisis in the first place. One cannot go back 10 years and hope to address the tensions at the heart of platform capitalism; one must go back to the economic and social foundations that made it possible: the relationships between property and land, the zoning ordinances and bureaucratic mechanisms that regulate the city, and the laboring bodies corralled and shuffled throughout urban space.

Seeking regulation, Srnicek’s third option, opens the space to deal with these questions in the present moment. Activism at the municipal level allows these historical processes to be examined through the creation of political coalitions around shared interests and antagonisms. While far from perfect, regulation activism creates the potential to go beyond platforms and tinker with the heart of what makes city life possible. And in navigating the political work of holding a coalition together, regulation activism reveals what forces and interests seek to limit engagement with these questions more broadly. While the regulations themselves may not be particularly revolutionary, their potential unrealized scope may provide a surer way to kill giants, opening an avenue for building a new world in the shell of the old.

Fighting platform capitalism does not strictly have to happen at the level of worldwide capital flows. It can happen on the level of identifying tactical coalitional possibilities that might otherwise seem unlikely and unrealized. The recent regulatory victories in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. are illustrative of this. Residents challenged Airbnb’s presence in their cities by working to pass legislation to delimit the kind of short-term rentals their city would allow (by length of stay, type of residence, number of residences, and safety requirements for the dwelling). In 2015, coalition groups formed in these cities to argue for their preferred form of regulation at city council hearings. They also wrote op-eds, held rallies, visited legislators, collected petition signatures, funded political ads, and employed other grassroots strategies to move their vision forward. Landlord associations, the hotel industry, and tech platforms are rarely depicted as friends to individual residents or homeowners, yet they played a pivotal role in shaping and deciding the short-term regulation fights. Similarly, individual Airbnb users and tenants are often depicted as having material interests tied to their financial and class status, yet in these regulatory debates, the alignments took unexpected turns, with some tenants speaking up in favor of Airbnb and Airbnb users raising their voices against gentrification. For those who seek to kill giants, it’s worth noting how these pieces can fall into place in unexpected ways.

The three largest coalitions that emerged in D.C. and San Francisco were (1) a pro-regulation, odd-fellows coalition of landlord associations in favor of long-term rentals, Airbnb hosts concerned with the potential abuse of short-term rentals, neighborhood associations, tenants’ rights groups, hotel workers, and members of the traditional hospitality and lodging industry such as hotels and boarding houses; (2) a pro-platform contingent of Airbnb hosts, tenants’ rights groups, and neighborhood associations in favor of limited regulations; and (3) the platform corporations proper. These coalitions coalesced over different visions of what housing in the city ought to be.

By favoring travelers over permanent residents, platforms create greater potential for displacement

The pro-regulation coalition agreed on a common vision of the city: a place where homes are for workers, the hospitality industry is for tourists, and these discrete spaces are subject to specific government regulations that maintains this urban homeostasis. The pro-platform contingent recognized the importance of long-term rentals but worried that, in pursuing regulations, the city would squash an emerging economy of hosts who depend on rental income to stay in their homes and pay their bills. Likewise, some tenants’ rights groups saw Airbnb as a valuable corporate partner that could fund their organizations’ affordable housing development. This coalition’s vision of the city was much more laissez-faire, with room for only limited regulation codifying a short-term rental host’s right to do business and creating a common safety standard. Finally, the platforms themselves pushed for “sensible regulations” that codified their ability to do business in the city while allowing them to self-regulate — a negotiated governance where corporations complied with basic requests from the city but ultimately ran their platforms how they pleased.

Surprisingly, when I spoke with city residents in the pro-regulation and pro-platform coalitions for my research on short-term rental regulations, they shared similar reactions to the impact of short-term rentals on their city’s housing supply. Airbnb hosts, a majority of who were owner-occupants who strove to obey their city’s and the platform’s rules and regulations, worried about the potential of short-term rentals moving from a small, supplementary practice to a profit-driven enterprise operating at a scale that could be damaging to city housing stock. For hotel workers, the emergence of a noncompliant short-term rental industry threatened their unionized livelihood. Likewise, hotel industry representatives felt like they were overburdened by regulations compared with a new nimble actor engaged in the same industry. And tenants’ rights groups and landlord associations feared that short-term rentals, if unregulated, threatened the long-term housing stock.

Each of these actors also understood the position of members in the opposing coalitions. Pro-regulation coalition members would tell me that they supported the right of “grandma to rent a room in her house” and that the pro-platform coalition was misled about what regulations were going to do. On the other side, pro-platform coalition members were sympathetic to the plight of various industries and the need to protect and inspect housing stock. However, they believed that regulations went too far in their fees, penalties, and restrictions — unnecessary burdens they saw as protecting the interests of dominant lodging and rental industries at the expense of small-scale short-term rental hosts. These alternative interpretations of intent and need were crystallized in Airbnb’s call for “sensible regulations.” While everyone in the coalitions agreed that some regulations were necessary, they disagreed about what constituted sensibleness.

These differing political economies show how platforms depend on contested discussions among city residents of what capital accumulation ought to look like. What cut across these debates were the important questions of what a home is and who home is for. Residents, legislators, and affected parties debated the acceptability of the shifts that Airbnb brought to the space of the residential home: Who should occupy residential spaces? What commercial activities should be permitted inside them?

The importance of the long-term rental, and the industries and livelihoods constructed around this housing formation, proved to be a crucible for unexpected alliances among actors who would otherwise be at odds — hotel workers and the hotel industry, tenant’s rights groups and landlord associations. In this alliance, these actors and interests entrenched a hegemonic vision of their preferred composition of city housing against the platform’s call to move housing into a short-term industry. They fortified a regime of governance that defends the particular arrangement of economy and life that seeks to provide, however imperfectly, long-term housing for all city residents and restrict travel to designated zones and industries.

Ultimately, San Francisco ended up passing regulations on short-term rentals in 2015 and Washington D.C. passed similar regulations in 2018. Short-term rentals were limited to dwellings that were owner-occupied, and the owner had to be present at the dwelling for 275 days out of the year. This is becoming a broader trend: Airbnb and similar platforms are becoming increasingly regulated, both within the short-term rental industry and by individual states. Platforms have also started to begrudgingly collaborate with the cities passing laws and doing their own data gathering and regulatory enforcement. In the past month, Airbnb has committed to a year-long census to vet the listings on its platform for accuracy and safety.

While these efforts are commendable in the short term, they do not go far enough. The home, and the hegemony of interests that defends and defines it, remains untouched and unexamined in the break created by Airbnb and short-term rentals. The regulations and reforms pursued by coalitions that arose to regulate Airbnb are limited in their scope by the actors that played a part in them: by regimes of accumulation that allow for property ownership, by structures of labor that make hotels and the hospitality industry possible, by dominant conceptions of who a resident is and what a resident wants, and by a financialized world that underwrites it all.

While far from perfect, regulation activism creates the potential to go beyond platforms and tinker with the heart of what makes city life possible

The challenge Airbnb poses is one part of a larger problem surrounding housing and property in urban settings. The home is not just a refuge for the family; it is a site structured by histories of power where societal hierarchies and exclusions are reproduced. Scholarship in indigenous studies, like Natchee Blu Barnd’s Native Space, Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks, and Mishuana Goeman’s Mark My Words, show how the dispossession of indigenous lands and the struggle against these processes are ongoing features of our urban landscapes. Theories of colonization, like Iyko Day’s Alien Capital, Tiffany Lethabo King’s The Black Shoals, and Patrick Wolfe’s Settler Colonialism, emphasize that the colonial process of settling on indigenous lands and its attendant dispossessions of racialized peoples were not a singular event relegated to the past but are an ongoing process of conquest and violence that shape our daily lives. Likewise, studies on housing discrimination and property by indigenous studies, black studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander studies, and critical ethnic studies scholars, like Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property, Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness as Property,” and George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, have shown how U.S. property law has created a “possessive investment in whiteness” at the expense of communities of color. Redlining, the destruction of historical communities, eminent domain, policing and surveillance, confiscation, and sequestering populations in toxic sites are all part of a longer legacy of racist housing and development.

For those of us seeking to build a more just world, we must take advantage of the breaks created through the regulation of platforms like Airbnb. The regulatory coalitions that are created are temporary — falling apart just as we begin to question the conditions of possibility that underlie our world. To kill giants, it is not enough to create another giant or tether them and hope they do not get loose.

While reforms of Airbnb often bill themselves as “ethical” and responsible interventions in the short-term rental industry, we should also ask broader questions of what kinds of property and travel are ethical. Answering these questions requires the difficult work of unearthing the messy history of our cities and their patterns of uneven development. We must work to reverse these larger patterns through the same avenues used to constrain (and empower) platforms. It is not enough to call for more housing but to question what it means to have housing entirely.

The local legislature is one immediately accessible avenue to do this work, but it is far from the only one. The legislature provides an avenue for residents to come together and contest the power of platforms by forging alliances. However, the power of state regulators depends on the foundational conditions of the state itself — on governance founded in dispossession, discrimination, criminalization, and violence in service of capital expansion. To answer the broader questions of ethics requires a fundamental restructuring of the state and the socio-economic conditions that make it possible. It is not enough to only use state power. We must question the capacity that state power endows to us and whether this capacity may be more of a limit than an endowment.

To use the law for immediate ends while building power to change governance itself, we must not shy away from the stages where these conversations were once had, the legislative spaces that established property, housing, and monetary extraction as it is today, and instead work to bring them to the fore. We must also reckon with the imperfect alignments of power that make these choices possible — the industries and regimes of monetization that fund and fuel legislative activism, but also delimit the terrain of struggle — and think through where we can stomach alliances with existing giants and where we must draw the line.

How does one kill a giant? One piece at a time. But one must not stop in the vain confidence that one has mortally wounded a behemoth when one has merely given it a scratch.

Nina Medvedeva is a Ph.D. candidate in Feminist Studied at the University of Minnesota: Twin Cities. Her research explores what the short-term rental regulation debates in Boston, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. can teach us about how city residents imagine and govern the home.