My Airbnb Dilemma and Modern Squatters

My Airbnb flat in Montreal

I am an enormous fan of Airbnb. It is a wonderfully disruptive addition to travelling and it funnels visitors into parts of cities where there are no hotels. I have been an Airbnb host for five years in Copenhagen, renting out a room and enjoying having international guests sharing my home with me and my kids. On occasion, I’ll rent out the whole flat if I am travelling on business. I get it. I support the concept.

I see the benefits in my own neighbourhood of Frederiksberg in Copenhagen. A densely-populated area with few hotels that featured no visitors until Airbnb showed up on the radar. Now you see couples and families with their rolling suitcases seeking out cool accomodation.

However. I also understand the challenges and my recent visit to Montreal laid them bare for me. I work with cities and with urbanism so I get how too much of a good thing for individuals renting accommodation has a negative impact on neighbourhoods, housing issues and density.

In Montreal, I stay in Mile End. Nothing else. Period. There are no hotels in this cool neighbourhood and I would rather eat my own foot to survive than stay in the city’s anonymous downtown core. I normally stay with good friends but their teenager stole my room. So I searched Airbnb and found an amazing flat in the heart of Mile End and booked it right away.

Montreal hasn’t been as hardcore as New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Barcelona about limiting Airbnb in order to maintain density and keeping flats available for residents in the city. Those cities are reacting to an Airbnb overkill and with good reason.

The flat in Montreal, on the corner of St Urbain and St Viateur was spacious and cool. It was blatantly advertised as “self-service” and a company called Sonder was behind the rental. They have an independent website highlighting the fact that they have several such properties for rent in Montreal and elsewhere.

I fetched the keys from a lockbox on the railing outside and used a code to get into the flat itself. Towels and hotelesque shampoo bottles were waiting for me on the bed. I didn’t meet any local owner or renter — just me and some codes. I like that. I prefer hotels generally and renting the whole place was what I was looking for. But the anonymous checkin felt a bit odd.

The Airbnb Glare

Maybe you’ve seen this glare as an Airbnb guest. I was in town for seven nights and one morning we were navigating the icy steps on our way out when I saw a woman heading towards us on the sidewalk. Her face was twisted into an expression of disgust and — to be frank — hate. It was an amazing face and the eyes on it were fixed firmly on me. I was taken aback. I turned to see her enter the same building.

This was a tenant who was not a fan of Airbnb guests. I hear from many friends that there is pushback from neighbours when they rent out a flat. A lot of pushback is whiny. People try to protect their little bubble and fail to see how visitors to neighbourhoods contribute to the local economy and life on the streets.

The flat I rented however, was designed purely for tourists so while her face was wildly evil, I understand the basic emotion behind it. I heard neighbours on the stairs every day — chatting on the landing about this or that. It was — like all of Mile End — a great local feeling. One that I wasn’t a part of. I feared meeting that woman again but I was hoping to. I wanted to talk to her about the situation. I want to stay in Mile End. This flat was available. It wasn’t illegal to rent it. I threw money at numerous local establishments — with pleasure. I was a quiet considerate guest who didn’t throw parties.

Throughout the week I kept looking at the flat and seeing how it could be, should be, populated by a family of three or four. I could totally live there with my two kids if need be. I started to get bugged by the fact that it wasn’t populated by a local family or couple. I felt like a modern, transient squatter.

For contrast, I visited friends renting a condo apartment — through Airbnb — downtown. A tall, boring building with a modern flat and a 22nd floor view of the architectural abberation that is downtown Montreal. Not a lot of neighbourhood feel to that place, compared to the ultra-local feel in Mile End. A lot of modern squatters in the building, I was told. A hotel feel. Fair enough. Downtown Montreal isn’t an attractive place to live and still suffers from depopulation.

I checked out after a week, shoving the keys in the lockbox and heading for the airport. It was a good stay in the flat and in the neighbourhood but I am left with a dilemma. A fervant fan of Airbnb has realised that there are limits emerging. Moral choices to be made.

I will rent something in Mile End the next time I am visiting. But I will do a bit more research to find a place that is — for whatever reason — rented out by a local.

Maybe I’ll do something like I saw once on an airplane. A couple with a small baby found their seats and starting handing out candy to all the passengers around them as a pre-emptive charm campaign to thwart angry glares during the flight when the kid starting crying. Brilliant. I’ll buy some candy and write a nice note and leave it on the matt in front of each door.

Letting them know that I get it but that we must find a balance between companies renting out flats as a business model and locals wanting to welcome visitors to their neighbourhood and earn some extra cash.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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