Culture At Large

No Room at the Inn? Try Airbnb

Tamara Hill Murphy

I was thinking about G.K. Chesterton’s poem, “The House of Christmas,” this week as I read the news about an ongoing legal battle between the home-sharing company Airbnb and the City of New York. Since 2008, Airbnb’s business model has disrupted the entire hotel industry with the simple idea that people will pay money for the opportunity to stay in someone else’s home rather than in a generic hotel room that is often unaffordable or unavailable. Lodgers by the millions have responded to Airbnb’s focus on the “hospitality” quotient of the hospitality industry.

This reminded me of the first stanza in Chesterton’s poem: “There fared a mother driven forth / Out of an inn to roam; / In the place where she was homeless / All men are at home.” Each year, we rehearse the narrative of Christ’s birth and imagine the loneliness and exhaustion Mary and Joseph felt. We wonder about the heartlessness of the overbooked innkeeper, perhaps bound by regulations that kept him from making room for a woman about to give birth. Where Chesterton points out the paradox of a homeless Messiah extending welcome to all people, I wonder if Airbnb’s model of hospitality represents one way God's grace is incarnated.

Airbnb claims that most of their 640,000 hosts rent out spare rooms as a way to earn extra cash to keep up with ever-increasing housing costs. Opponents, however, say the short-term rental units offered by Airbnb hosts actually exacerbate housing shortages and limit affordable housing solutions for residents, particularly in expensive urban centers. In New York City this month, Airbnb first challenged and then settled a suit against the city after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation threatening to fine a segment of the company’s home-sharing hosts. 

The hotel industry has not been secretive about their delight that the new legislation will directly result in increased pricing. One hotel CEO recently stated to shareholders that Airbnb directly hinders the hospitality industry’s "ability to price at what maybe the customer would describe as sort of gouging rates."

It doesn’t take an economist to understand that bureaucratic regulations and the sharing economy are not likely to make good working buddies. The sharing economy is based on peer-to-peer exchanges of commodities, while business models thrive when the number of suppliers is limited enough to keep profit margins high. I don’t understand much more than that on the theoretical level, but I have some great anecdotes from the experiential level.

Might Airbnb’s model of hospitality represent one way God's grace is incarnated?

I’ve lost count of the number of times my husband and I have needed affordable places to rent for a night or two and have benefitted from the hospitality of Airbnb hosts. We’ve had plenty of fine hotel stays, of course, but there’s a particular welcome that only a home can provide. We spent an entire month of sabbatical in Ireland staying in one Airbnb home after another, soaking in the welcome of individual families all across the island. This dream trip would have been impossible if hotel stays had been our only option.

In the city we live, about 50 miles from Manhattan and sitting on the coastline of the Long Island Sound, there are exactly three hotels. In a community where incomes and real-estate values were knocked flat by the recession, we have friends who transformed their entire house into a beautiful Airbnb. They sleep in whatever bedroom happens to be available each night, and in return have been able to keep their house while providing much-needed hospitality for our community.

There was also the time we needed to house two dozen out-of-town relatives for our son’s wedding and four different friends opened up rooms and cottages and, in some cases, gave up their entire home to make space for our friends and family. None of them were Airbnb hosts, but they demonstrated the kind of hospitality millions of people seem to be seeking.

While I am not an expert on the economics of the hospitality industry, I am a grateful member of the home-sharing economy. The biggest issue in the debate, for me, is not about profit margins and regulations, but about the millions of people demonstrating a clear desire to spend time—even rented time—in a welcoming home.

I say, let’s embrace the vision of home and hospitality, hosting and sharing found in Airbnb’s business model. The world is full of travelers and wanderers, including some who are homesick within their very own homes. As we remember the holy family seeking shelter, let’s make plenty of room within our houses, neighborhoods, and churches, reflecting the homespun truth Chesterton speaks in the closing stanza of “The House of Christmas”:

To an open house in the evening

Home shall men come,

To an older place than Eden

And a taller town than Rome.

To the end of the way of the wandering star,

To the things that cannot be and that are,

To the place where God was homeless

And all men are at home.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Economics, Theology & The Church, Christmas & Easter