The last AirBnB

While visiting Berlin this year, some friends and I stayed in an airy apartment in Friedrichshain. Its interior was beautifully modeled in a modest European style, its vantage point on the fifth floor overlooked a beautiful inner courtyard, and it was close to all the neighborhood’s best restaurants and nightspots.

We were about to head down to stay in Leipzig for a few days and contacted the landlord to see if we could arrange to book the same apartment again upon our return stay. To our surprise at the time, they responded with a definitive “no”. Renting the unit on AirBnB was no longer legal.

We learnt that this was because of Berlin’s new Zweckentfremdungsverbot law going into effect, a measure designed to help bolster the city’s diminishing housing supply. While renting our rooms in shared units was still perfectly fine, making the entire unit available was no longer allowed due to the probable effect on rental stock.

I’ve used AirBnB well over a dozen times now and have had a great experience on every stay, but even so, the new law still struck me as eminently reasonable. On a previous visit to Berlin I’d stayed in five separate AirBnBs over a span of three weeks. Every one of them was used as an AirBnB unit all year around with no permanent resident. I spoke to one owner on my way out, and he admitted that he was operating this unit along with four others – his full time job was acquiring apartments and putting them on AirBnB.

Berlin’s rent control laws strongly favor tenants. I know one couple that moved to Switzerland, but kept their Berlin apartment to stay in during the occasional return visit because it was so cheap to do so. You used to hear stories about new couples moving into a larger apartment together, but keeping both their previous apartments for use with AirBnB; eating the healthy margin between their advantageous grandfathered rents and Berlin’s AirBnB pricing, which was about the same as a nice hotel.

We live in a capitalist society and housing is private property. It would seem intuitive to many of us that an owner should be able to whatever they want with the property they own, but unlike the ownership of most other things, housing has the special property of its availability affecting the public good. In the long run, pulling units off the rental market by putting them on AirBnB is going to have a direct effect on the sustainability of a city, especially for cities that are popular destinations for tourism and business travel like San Francisco or Berlin. Owners will look for ways to maximize their rent, and without controls, that will be AirBnB every time.

It was strange to think about in retrospect how I was the last observer–and even participant–of a dying era. There are some chapters of history however, that are better off closed.

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