A Problem With Airbnb in Hawai‘i


The concept of “living like a local” and renting a “local property” via websites like Airbnb and VBRO was supposed to be a good step towards “responsible travel” — take money away from international hotel chains who funnel the money to their headquarters outside of the destination, and put it directly into the pockets of residents, the people who should benefit most from tourism, by giving them an avenue to rent out their extra rooms for extra cash.

On the visitor side, this goal has been accomplished. Travelers using Airbnb get the experience of staying in a residential community outside of the hotel districts. They can get a sense of what it might be like to live in the place they are visiting.

But the noble concept has come with major unforeseen drawbacks for residents. Landlords and homeowners around the world are forgoing long-term rentals for the more lucrative short-term vacation-rental market, pricing locals out of desirable areas, creating pockets of transient tourists where there were once purely residential communities.

In other situations, the “residential house” a visitor rents on Airbnb is actually owned by a property manager who does not live in the community. Meaning that while you might be staying in a local house, you are not necessarily contributing to the local economy.

This is not just a Hawai‘i problem. It happens all over the world, and I have seen it first hand throughout my travels. Walk through any city and look at the front gates of apartment buildings. You will most likely see a long line of lock boxes, signaling a constant stream of visitors. In these buildings, your neighbors are not your neighbors.

A flat I stayed at in Cartagena was owned by a Spanish woman, who owned a half dozen properties in South America. A six-bedroom house I rented for a friend’s bachelor party in Loveland might have once been a residential property, but not anymore – there were instructional signs hung up all over the house, and the guest book let me know that no one had lived there in a long time.

The concern among many local communities, both here in Hawai‘i and elsewhere, is that the earning potential of short-term rentals is disrupting local life. A Hawai‘i watchdog organization, Airbnb Watch Hawai‘i, recently put out a video to call attention to the issue, feeling that locals are being priced out of their own neighborhoods and that, thanks to Airbnb’s marketing efforts, visitors believe they are doing a good thing when in reality they are furthering a problem.

“Airbnb’s story is that it’s your uncle, it’s your cousin, it’s your auntie, who is making a little extra money by renting out a spare room,” the video begins. “The reality is that the bulk of Airbnb’s hosts are major operators who have multiple listings who are renting out entire homes or apartments. So Airbnb’s impact makes it incredibly easy to get short-term profits from the visitor market at the expense of long-term rents for local residents.”

To be fair, the own-to-rent concept is not new. Beach communities, for example, have done this for decades. I grew up going to the Ocean City New Jersey, where 90% of the properties were rented by the week and owned by someone who lived elsewhere. No one at the Jersey Shore is going to rent to you on a month-to-month lease unless you’re willing to match what they could make in the week-to-week visitor market.

It’s basic economics and investment. I think everyone understands that. I don’t think anyone “blames” someone for making a smart investment in the modern housing market. I also don’t think anyone would confuse Ocean City for a residential community these days.

There are consequences to consider. What will Kailua look like in twenty years? If we are serious about “responsible travel,” do we need to draw a distinction between renting a room from a local resident and renting an entire house from a non-resident owner? Sure, I went to Cartagena and I stayed in a “local house,” but my money went to a Spanish woman, who lives in Spain.

At some point, if we want to try to get back to the ideal, noble potential that Airbnb initially held, we’re going to have to address these realities.

Further reading:

Did Airbnb Kill the Mountain Town? (Outside Magazine)

Airbnb Versus New York City (Mashable)

Airbnb, VBRO Rentals Have Residents Upset (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

The Good and Bad of Airbnb (Metropolis Magazine)

2 thoughts on “A Problem With Airbnb in Hawai‘i

  1. I recently rented a place in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, USA with VRBO. The description read like it was a 2bdrm apartment in a lovely community, only to find out that it was an entire apartment complex bought out by a major company in another country, with no mention of that OR that we would be charged international transaction fees because of all transactions took place overseas. It also neglected to mention that only a handful of the apartments were renovated and the remainder of the complex was empty, giving the feel of a ghost town.


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