Regulatory Approaches to Airbnb

photo by Open Grid Scheduler

Peter Coles et al. have posted Airbnb Usage Across New York City Neighborhoods: Geographic Patterns and Regulatory Implications to SSRN. Two of the co-authors are affiliated to Airbnb and the other three are affiliated to NYU. The paper states that “No consulting fees, research grants or other payments have been made by Airbnb to the NYU authors . . .” (1) The abstract reads,

This paper offers new empirical evidence about actual Airbnb usage patterns and how they vary across neighborhoods in New York City. We combine unique, census-tract level data from Airbnb with neighborhood asking rent data from Zillow and administrative, census, and social media data on neighborhoods. We find that as usage has grown over time, Airbnb listings have become more geographically dispersed, although centrality remains an important predictor of listing location. Neighborhoods with more modest median household incomes have also grown in popularity, and disproportionately feature “private room” listings (compared to “entire home” listings). We find that compared to long-term rentals, short-term rentals do not appear to be as profitable as many assume, and they have become relatively less profitable over our time period. Additionally, short-term rentals appear most profitable relative to long-term rentals in outlying, middle-income neighborhoods. Our findings contribute to an ongoing regulatory conversation catalyzed by the rapid growth in the short-term rental market, and we conclude by bringing an economic lens to varying approaches proposed to target and address externalities that may arise in this market.

I found the review alternative regulatory approaches to be particularly helpful:

City leaders around the world have adopted a wide range of approaches. We conclude by reviewing these alternative regulatory responses. We consider both citywide as well as neighborhood-specific responses, like those recently enacted in Portland, Maine or in New Orleans. A promising approach from an economic perspective is to impose fees that vary with intensity of usage. For instance, in Portland, Maine, short-term rental host fees increase with the number of units a given host seeks to register, and a recent bill from Representatives in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (H.3454) propose taxes that vary with the intensity of usage of individual units. Such varying fees may help discourage conversions of long-term rentals to short-term rentals and better internalize externalities that might rise with greater use. That said, overly-customized approaches may be difficult to administer. Regulatory complexity itself should also be a criterion in choosing policy responses. (2-3, citations omitted)

We are still a long ways off from knowing how the short-term rental market will be regulated once it fully matures, so work like this helps us see where we are so far.

Housing Affordability Across The Globe

The 11th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2015 has been released. The survey provides ratings for metropolitan markets in Australia, Canada, China, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S. There are some interesting global trends:

Historically, the Median Multiple has been remarkably similar in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, with median house prices from 2.0 to 3.0 times median household incomes. However, in recent decades, house prices have been decoupled from this relationship in a number of markets, such as Vancouver, Sydney, San Francisco, London, Auckland and others. Without exception, these markets have severe land use restrictions (typically “urban containment” policies) that have been associated with higher land prices and in consequence higher house prices (as basic economics would indicate, other things being equal).
Virtually no government administering urban containment policy effectively monitors housing affordability. However, encouraging developments have been implemented at higher levels of government in New Zealand and Florida, and there are signs of potential reform elsewhere. (1-2)
These findings are consistent with Glaeser and Gyourko’s research on U.S. housing markets. Not too many local politicians seem to acknowledge the tension between land use policies that limit residential density on the one hand and housing affordability on the other. The de Blasio Administration in NYC is a refreshing exception to that general rule.
The explicit bias of the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey “is that domestic public policy should, first and foremost be focused on improving the standard of living and reducing poverty.” (2) Those who favor policies that create more affordable housing should take to heart the call for greater density and less restrictive zoning for residential uses. Otherwise, we are left with subsidy programs that can only help a small percentage of those in need of affordable housing and a lot of empty promises about affordable housing for all. Subsidies have a place in an affordable housing agenda, but so does density.

Rent Regulation and Housing Affordability

NYU’s Furman Center issued a fact brief, Profile of Rent-Stabilized Units and Tenants in New York City, that provides context for the deliberations of the Rent Guidelines Board as it considers a rent freeze for NYC apartments subject to rent stabilization.

Rent regulated (rent stabilized and rent controlled) apartments clearly serve households that have lower incomes than households in market rate apartments. Median household income (fifty percent are below and fifty percent are above this number) is $37,600 for rent regulated and $52,260 for market rate households.Thus, market rate households have median incomes that are nearly 40% higher than rent regulated ones.

The median rent is $1,155 for rent regulated and $1,510 for market rate households.Thus, median rents are about 30% higher for market rate tenants.

Despite these differences, the number of households that are rent burdened (where rent is greater than 30% of income) is similar for the two groups: 58% for rent regulated and about 56% for market rate households. (4, Table D)

The Furman Center brief provides a useful context in which to consider NYC’s rental housing stock as well as the households that live in it. Given the nature of NYC households, however, I would have wished for a more finely detailed presentation of household incomes and rents.

NYC’s distribution of income is skewed toward the extremes — more low-income and high-income households and therefore fewer middle-income ones than the rest of the nation. Given this, it would have been helpful to have seen the range and distribution of incomes and rents, perhaps by deciles. The Furman Center brief indicates that updated data will be available next year, so that may provide an opportunity to give a more granular sense of dynamics of the NYC rental market.

Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan outlines his commitment to preserving affordable housing. One element of that commitment is to preserve rent regulated housing. Understanding that market sector and the households it serves is essential to meeting that commitment.