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Holiday Rentals: The New Gentrification Battlefront

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In this paper, I explore the impacts of holiday rentals in the historic centre of Barcelona. The intention is to contribute towards a conceptualisation of this unexplored phenomenon with the aim of better understanding why it represents the new gentrification battlefront in several tourist destinations. I suggest that the rhetoric of the sharing economy conceals the fact that holiday rentals are actually a new business opportunity for investors, tourist companies and individual landlords and, for this reason, long-term residents represent a barrier to capital accumulation. I show that there is an increasing conversion of housing into accommodation for visitors and that such conversion involves different forms of displacement. Importantly, when residents move out, the only buyers tend to be tourist investors. In such a context, I suggest that the growth of vacation flats produces conditions that solely enable the reproduction of further accommodation for visitors, rather than for long-term residential use. I call this process 'collective displacement', that is to say, a substitution of residential life by tourism. Ultimately, throughout this paper I suggest the importance of undertaking critical research relevant to those experiencing urban inequalities. Documenting and producing data about the way in which displacement takes place can be a crucial political tool for those who are fighting for staying put.
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Holiday Rentals: The New Gentrification
Battlefront
by Agustín Cócola Gant
University of Lisbon
Sociological Research Online, 21 (3), 10
<http://www.socresonline.org.uk/21/3/10.html>
DOI: 10.5153/sro.4071
Received: 21 Mar 2016 | Accepted: 12 Aug 2016 | Published: 31 Aug 2016
Abstract
In this paper, I explore the impacts of holiday rentals in the historic centre of Barcelona. The intention is to contribute towards a
conceptualisation of this unexplored phenomenon with the aim of better understanding why it represents the new gentrification
battlefront in several tourist destinations. I suggest that the rhetoric of the sharing economy conceals the fact that holiday rentals are
actually a new business opportunity for investors, tourist companies and individual landlords and, for this reason, long-term residents
represent a barrier to capital accumulation. I show that there is an increasing conversion of housing into accommodation for visitors and
that such conversion involves different forms of displacement. Importantly, when residents move out, the only buyers tend to be tourist
investors. In such a context, I suggest that the growth of vacation flats produces conditions that solely enable the reproduction of further
accommodation for visitors, rather than for long-term residential use. I call this process 'collective displacement', that is to say, a
substitution of residential life by tourism. Ultimately, throughout this paper I suggest the importance of undertaking critical research
relevant to those experiencing urban inequalities. Documenting and producing data about the way in which displacement takes place
can be a crucial political tool for those who are fighting for staying put.
Keywords: Tourism, Gentrification, Displacement, Holiday Rentals, Airbnb, Barcelona
Introduction
The phenomenon of holiday rentals is becoming a central gentrification battlefront in several cities in
both the North and the South. A look at the internet shows how residents and activists in different places are
expressing concerns about the impacts that vacation flats have in their neighbourhoods, especially after the
spread of portals such as Airbnb. Research about the impacts of vacation rentals and how they are contested,
however, remains in its infancy. Some authors reveal that behind the rhetoric of the sharing economy there is
simply another opportunity for capital accumulation (Arias-Sans & Quaglieri-Domínguez 2016). The suppliers, far
from being single families that occasionally rent the homes in which they live, tend to be the same investors and
landlords that were fuelling previous rounds of gentrification. Other authors note that short-term rentals are a
central element in the context of growing protests and campaigns that point to tourism as a factor in urban
inequality (Colomb and Novy 2016; Füller and Michel 2014; Peters 2016; Opillard 2016). Despite these initial
steps, there are no empirical studies that assess the way in which holiday rentals transform communities and,
consequently, reveal why they are being resisted and by whom.
By gentrification, I refer to a process of capital investment in the built environment that caters to the
demands of affluent users and, along the way, displaces the indigenous population (Lees et al. 2016). I show that
the growth of vacation rentals fuels housing rehabilitation and that this increasing conversion of housing into
accommodation for visitors entails different forms of displacement. The phenomenon, then, needs to be regarded
as an example of tourism gentrification. Also, the conversion of housing into accommodation for visitors is a
consequence of the liberalisation of the housing market and the change from housing as shelter towards housing
as an investment vehicle (Bone 2014; Cole et al. 2016). To understand why vacation rentals represent the new
gentrification battlefront, I focus on the impacts of the process. I explore how displacement takes place and who
is affected by it. It is worth noting that although in classical gentrification the middle-classes displace low income
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residents (Butler 2002), in this case both middle and working class residents are being displaced by the pressure
of tourist investors. Indeed, the process has an impact on both tenants and owners, which contradicts the liberal
rhetoric of home ownership as a protection against displacement. In the next section, I describe the forms of
displacement noted by gentrification research. In the following sections I present my methodology and my
empirical findings. Finally, I discuss my results and I relate them with the literature on displacement.
Forms of displacement
I draw on the conceptualisation of residential displacement advanced by Marcuse (1985) and other
authors (Newman and Wyly 2006;DeVerteuil 2011; Slater 2009; Davidson and Lees 2010). The most visible form
of displacement is usually 'direct displacement', which refers to an involuntary out-migration from a place. While
direct displacement is the most visible form of displacement, Marcuse (1985) also noted that an important but
hidden impact of gentrification is 'exclusionary displacement': the difficulties in finding affordable accommodation
in gentrifying areas. Marcuse added a final category –'displacement pressure'– which refers to changes at the
neighbourhood scale such as loss of social networks, stores or public facilities that are central to everyday life.
Marcuse stated that as the area becomes 'less and less livable, then the pressure of displacement already is
severe. Its actuality is only a matter of time' (1985: 207). As Davidson and Lees (2010) suggest, displacement
means a lot more than simply the moment of eviction. The pressure of displacement has long-term implications
that makes it progressively difficult for low-income residents to remain over time.
Methodology and case study
This paper is the result of a mixed method research approach that took place in Barcelona between
February and October 2015. The case study was the so-called Gòtic neighbourhood in Barcelona's historic
centre (Cócola Gant 2014a; 2014b). The area is a middle class neighbourhood that had been experiencing a
process of classical gentrification since the early 1990s. A survey of 220 households was conducted with the aim
of gathering data about housing conditions and to estimate the supply of holiday rentals. For this purpose, other
secondary sources were also used, in particular Airbnb and Inside Airbnb. However, the research emphasised
the qualitative approach as the main goal of the project was to give voice to long-term residents in order to
examine how the growth of holiday apartments affects them on a daily basis. In this regard, 42 in-depth
interviews were conducted as well as participant observation. Community contestation against vacation rentals is
a visible practice in Barcelona's city centre (Figure 1). However, I was more concerned with the hidden impacts
that holiday apartments have on the everyday lives of residents. I did not ask residents about how they organise
their political actions against the growth of tourist accommodation, but instead I asked why such a growth is seen
by many as the main cause of tension in the neighbourhood. Importantly, 40 out of the 42 interviewees stated
that holiday rentals displace residents. They talked about expulsions, harassment, rent increase, affordability
problems, the pressure of tourist investors, daily disruptions and so on. In other words, they reflected different
forms of displacement.
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Figure 1. Protests against holiday rentals. Barcelona, August 2014. Photograph by Ernest Cañada.
The question of positionality and how academics get involved in gentrification issues was present in all
phases of the research. I believe that gentrification research is a political activity and, consequently, we should
make our work more relevant to those people who are at risk of displacement. However, rather than emphasising
the spectacular or resistance practices (DeVerteuil 2015), I argue that revealing how displacement takes place is
a necessary political tool in confronting the rhetoric of success and growth and in showing the actual conditions in
which people experience urban inequalities. In his research in Brooklyn, Slater (2006: 748) depicts how he was
told by a community organiser that the best way he could help with local efforts in resisting gentrification was to
'come up with some numbers to show us how many people have been and are being displaced'. As social
injustices are visible if only the facts are placed in evidence, making efforts to show how inequalities take place is
a central tool for political action, especially to confront the hegemony of city leaders who believe that tourism
growth is in the interest of all.
Holiday rentals: supply and impacts
In this section, I describe my empirical results, which are organised in three sub-sections. First, I provide
a general introduction to holiday rentals in Barcelona. Second, I analyse the supply of holiday rentals, in
particular the extent to which housing has been converted into accommodation for visitors. Finally, I analyse my
qualitative findings and show the way in which holiday rentals lead to different forms of displacement.
An approximation to holiday rentals in Barcelona
The phenomenon of holiday rentals has been documented in Barcelona since the late 1990s. In a period
when tourism began to be the main industry in the city, some residents depict how young Americans left flyers in
post-boxes with the sentence 'you live in a goldmine'. At this stage it was sporadic, involved middle class guests
from North Europe and America and hosts tended to be childless families or young professionals. In the early
2000s, the phenomenon grew. Investors and hotel companies bought entire apartment buildings and transformed
them into vacation flats. Some landlords gradually stopped renting to traditional tenants. Lifestyle migrants also
bought second homes in Barcelona and rented them to visitors while they are away. Although the number of
single families who actually rented the homes in which they lived also grew, in this period holiday rentals became
an investment opportunity for many. The important point is that the activity fuelled housing rehabilitation and this
involved an increasing conversion of housing into tourist accommodation. It is at this moment when residents
experienced community tension and neighbourhood organisations started to complain, a fact that was noted by
some scholars (Degen 2004; García & Claver 2003). It is worth stressing, therefore, that the pressure of vacation
flats was already a fact prior to the creation of Airbnb in 2008. What Airbnb has done is to expand the situation
that existed before: more business opportunities for investors, tourist companies and landlords, and more
visibility for those who rent rooms in their homes.
The supply of holiday rentals
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Nowadays, an exploration of the supply of vacation flats shows the extent to which housing has been converted
into accommodation for visitors. Airbnb does not reveal how many apartments they list or how many 'hosts' use
the portal. By checking the website, one can only see the number of apartments listed at that moment but it does
not show the apartments that have been booked. Therefore, the total number of apartments taken out from the
housing stock will always be larger than the apartments listed on Airbnb during any specific day. In any case,
data gathered from Airbnb is useful in terms of understanding the phenomenon and in comparing the supply in
different areas. The project 'Inside Airbnb' captures such a supply in several cities every few months, including
Barcelona. I use the listing captured by Inside Airbnb on 2nd October, 2015, which produces the following
distribution:
Figure 2. Flats listed in Airbnb Barcelona. 2 October, 2015. Source: compiled from Inside Airbnb.
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Figure 3. Flats listed in the historic centre of Barcelona (Ciutat Vella). 2 October, 2015. Source: compiled from Inside
Airbnb.
In Barcelona, there were 14,539 flats listed on Airbnb. Interestingly, those flats represent 2.2% of
existing households. However, the phenomenon is uneven and there is a strong concentration in central areas.
In the historic centre (the district called Ciutat Vella) the proportion is 9.6%. Ciutat Vella has four
neighbourhoods, of which the Gòtic has a proportion of 16.8%. Therefore, in the Gòtic neighbourhood, 1 out of 6
apartments were listed on Airbnb on 2 October, 2015. These proportions can be seen in the following table:
Table 1. Airbnb listings on 2 October, 2015 and existing households. Source: Inside Airbnb and Barcelona City Council,
Statistics.
nd
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Qualitative results: holiday rentals and displacement
This sub-section explores how the conversion of housing into tourist accommodation is experienced by
residents. The aim is to better understand the impacts that vacation flats cause on communities and, by so doing,
to comprehend why they are being resisted. Put simply, as short-term rentals are an appealing business
opportunity, long-term residents represent a barrier to capital accumulation. Notwithstanding, the displacement
process is not so straight forward and actually takes several forms. The empirical work confirms the occurrence
of the different types of displacement conceptualised by Marcuse (1985): direct displacement, exclusionary
displacement and displacement pressures.
Direct displacement. Processes of direct displacement are a central concern within the community.
Ultimately, the 1,191 vacation flats that exist in the Gòtic area once provided accommodation for long-term
residents. There are cases in which tenants are economically compensated if they agree to leave prior to the end
of the agreement. In other cases, the landlord simply does not renew the contract. Despite the fact that for
tenants it is never easy to move out involuntarily, there are several cases in which the eviction process has been
more dramatic and violent, especially for lifetime tenants. Harassment and deliberate degradation is being used
to force tenants to leave.
Exclusionary displacement. Although direct displacement is more visible, I argue that exclusionary
displacement affects a larger number of residents as they are excluded from the possibility of accessing housing.
This exclusion is caused by two interrelated issues. Firstly, the fact that 16.8% of flats have been taken out of the
housing stock means that several landlords and companies do not even consider the idea of renting to residents
as they can make higher profits from short-term rentals. Secondly, the latter intensifies the rise in rent prices
which in Ciutat Vella is now 9% higher than the average in Barcelona, despite the fact that in 2007 it was 3%
lower. As a resident states, 'it took me ages simply to find a flat available to long-term residents. But they are so
expensive that you cannot afford them on local wages'. The difficulties in finding affordable accommodation
accelerates 'classical' gentrification as only middle- and upper-class groups can afford to move to the area. At the
same time, exclusionary displacement is at the origin of several strategies implemented by residents who want to
remain in the area but for which 'staying put' involves accepting poor living conditions, overcrowding or spending
more than 50% of their income on rent.
Displacement pressures. On the one hand, the fact that apartment buildings combine residential and
tourist uses is the cause of daily cohabitation troubles that have been for many the main reason to move out of
the property. There are several types of disruption that affect the private lives of residents. The most frequent is
noise and the growing difficulties encountered in resting and sleeping during night time. Several interviewees
explained that sometimes visitors do not even know which flat to go and so they try to open residents' doors.
These pressures affect all residents and not only tenants. I interviewed a couple who decided to sell their flat and
move to a different neighbourhood: 'in the building 14 out of 20 flats were holiday apartments. Some of them
were actually youth hostels. And they radically changed our lives (…)'. The coexistence of residential and tourist
uses also produces an economic pressure in which residents cannot afford the upkeep of a building increasingly
used by visitors. On the other hand, the pressure of tourist investors is on the increase. As a resident explains, 'it
is not a coincidence that every week I find in my post-box an offer to buy my flat saying "great opportunity!". The
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thing is that I feel I am trying to resist against something that ultimately says that I am a leftover here. That says:
what are you doing here? This place is for tourists'.
Discussion: towards a conceptualisation of collective displacement
The description of the way in which holiday rentals are experienced by residents shows that the moment
of eviction is not the only form of displacement (Marcuse 1985; Davidson and Lees 2010). Although direct
displacement is an important consequence, the process causes indirect impacts that are crucial to understanding
community opposition to tourism. From this point of view, understanding displacement pressures involves
understanding the lived experiences of residents before direct displacement takes place. But also, I want to
stress the importance of exclusionary displacement. The growth of the phenomenon excludes residents from the
possibility of accessing housing while also provoking mounting affordability pressures. The current loss of
housing stock also means that residents that have suffered direct displacement are unable to find
accommodation in the neighbourhood. This point is crucial as it makes it increasingly difficult to reproduce the
local community that, instead, is replaced by transient consumers.
I suggest that the growth of tourism and the consequent conversion of housing into accommodation for
visitors results in a process of social change that I call 'collective displacement'. Collective displacement needs to
be seen as the final consequence of a process in which all forms of displacement come together. First, the
growth of tourism causes a progressive out-migration of residents via direct displacement. Second, it is at the
origin of housing shortage and price increase, which excludes other residents from the possibility of moving into
the area. Third, this exclusion is accelerated by the daily disruptions and economic pressures caused by vacation
flats. Finally, such disruptions and the pressure of tourist investors 'force' residents to sell their flats. In such a
context, the only buyers tend to be tourist investors, which further intensifies and reproduces the displacement
process. In conclusion, the growth of the phenomenon results in a vicious circle that solely enables the
reproduction of further accommodation for visitors rather than for long-term residential use. It is a snowball
process in which the area loses residents and excludes potential ones from the possibility of moving in. It leads to
a form of collective displacement never seen in classical gentrification, that is to say, to a substitution of
residential life by tourism.
Final remarks
Tourism-driven displacement is central to understanding why vacation flats are resisted. As stressed by
Slater (2015), it is important to note that displacement is actively produced and has nothing to do with a
supposedly natural functioning of the free market. The process is fuelled by investors, tourist companies and
individual landlords for whom the conversion of residential buildings into accommodation for visitors is a new
business opportunity. It is also facilitated by the state via the liberalisation of the housing market as it allows such
a conversion. By way of contrast, for residents and for those who need a place to live holiday rentals represent
the new gentrification battlefront. The phenomenon threatens their right to stay put while making it increasingly
difficult for residents to find affordable accommodation. The example of vacation rentals shows the extent to
which tourism can be a displacing process and, as such, a process that leads to urban inequalities. This fact
opens new questions for gentrification research, but especially for public policy, as it challenges the assumption
that the growth of tourism is inherently positive.
I have suggested that the growth of the phenomenon could lead to a substitution of residential life by
tourism. Although further research is needed, this outcome is confirmed by early demographic studies in
Barcelona (López-Gay and Cócola Gant 2016) as well as in other tourist destinations (Kesar et al. 2015) that
links the growth of vacation rentals to a progressive population decrease. I suggest that this snowball process
also needs to be related with changes in the entire character of the place. The mutation of places into spaces of
tourism consumption makes everyday life increasingly difficult (Cócola Gant 2015). In this regard, we need
empirical studies to explore the extent to which the growth of the tourism industry undermines the use value of
neighborhoods as places for social reproduction.
Acknowledgements
This research is supported by the Portuguese National Funding Agency for Science, Research and Technology
(SFRH/BPD/93008/2013) and by the School of Geography and Planning, University of Cardiff. The author is
grateful to Geoffrey DeVerteuil and Peter Mackie for their support and supervision and to the anonymous
reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions.
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... Evidence about the spatial effects of accommodation platforms is indeed ambivalent (for a review, see Guttentag, 2019). Short-term rentals, it has been shown, are causing both the overtouristification of already highly touristified city centres (Alizadeh et al., 2018;Arias Sans & Quaglieri Dom ınguez, 2016;Ben ıtez-Aurioles, 2018;Picascia et al., 2017) and the invasion and gentrification of non-touristic neighbourhoods (Cocola-Gant, 2016;Ioannides et al., 2019;Wachsmuth & Weisler, 2018). This apparent ambivalence can easily be solved by assuming that short-term rentals are much more diffused and widespread all over the cities' central and nearcentral areas than hotels and traditional accommodation facilities (Celata, 2017;Guti errez et al., 2017;Gy odi, 2017). ...
... Previous analyses of the distribution and impact of short-term rentals are often affected by the MAUP. Such impact is in fact analysed sometimes at the city scale, e.g. based on municipal boundaries (Alizadeh et al., 2018;Wegmann & Jiao, 2017), sometimes on a sub-municipal scale using predefined divisions such as neighbourhoods or census tracts (Cocola-Gant, 2016;Guti errez et al., 2016;Wachsmuth & Weisler, 2018), and other times focussing on specific neighbourhoods (Cocola-Gant & Gago, 2019;Ioannides et al. 2019;Smith et al., 2018). Estimates are therefore affected by the scale and shape of the geographical divisions adopted, which is particularly problematic if we wish to compare cities or neighbourhoods. ...
... Increased property values are positive for hosts, but for those who have difficulty paying increased rents, this gentrification effect results with displacement. In addition to direct displacement, the increase in housing and rental prices is having an exclusive impact for those who want to move to the neighborhood (Cócola Gant, 2016). Another economic problem created by Airbnb for the entire society is that the hosts are not taxed on this exchange (Oskam & Boswijk, 2016). ...
... Sheppard and Udell's (2016) findings that the expansion of Airbnb in New York led to a 6-11% increase in property values, are in line with the field work in this study. Cócola Gant's (2016) stated that Airbnb increases property values, as a positive outcome for hosts, and that this leads to gentrification in the neighborhood. However in the Besiktas field study, no evidence confirming the above statement was found. ...
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... De la misma manera se han comportado los precios inmobiliarios (Arbaci, 2008;Burriel, 2008), los cuales, desde el periodo precrisis, han dejado fuera del mercado primario a la población con escasos recursos económicos, como es el caso de muchos inmigrantes (Bosch & Gibaja, 2005;Bruquetas et al., 2011), que generalmente viven en régimen de alquiler (Módenes et al., 2013). Es este un sector especialmente tensionado debido a los procesos de gentrificación y, más recientemente, a los de turistificación, que convirtieron viviendas de uso habitual en alojamientos vacacionales (Cócola, 2016;Pittini et al., 2019). ...
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