Airbnb’s Lessons For Affordable Housing

One professor’s idea to provide housing subsidies to more low-income families.

This illustration can only be used with the Sarah Smith story that originally ran in the 10/233/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. 
Neil Webb
Oct. 23, 2015, 5 a.m.

New York Uni­versity Pro­fess­or In­grid Gould El­len has an idea she thinks could help get more low-in­come fam­il­ies money for hous­ing sub­sidies: Take les­sons from shar­ing-eco­nomy suc­cess stor­ies like Airb­nb and ap­ply them to the world of af­ford­able hous­ing. I re­cently spoke to El­len about her idea. Our ex­change has been ed­ited and con­densed.

What prob­lem would this idea ad­dress? How is this dif­fer­ent from what’s already in place un­der Sec­tion 8?

We live in a world where three-fourths of eli­gible house­holds in the U.S. don’t re­ceive any hous­ing sub­sidies due to lack of re­sources. The idea is to make sub­sidy dol­lars stretch fur­ther with shar­ing. We’d have policies that make shar­ing homes easi­er, or shar­ing sub­sidies pos­sible, and we’d re­lax build­ing reg­u­la­tions. Hous­ing au­thor­it­ies cur­rently can al­low Sec­tion 8 vouch­er-hold­ers to live in shared liv­ing ar­range­ments, and to pay a pro­rated share of the rent, but many hous­ing au­thor­it­ies avoid of­fer­ing this op­tion be­cause of wor­ries about li­ab­il­ity and a lack of con­trol—what if oth­er mem­bers stop pay­ing their share of rent? Shar­ing could be messy, but we have little ex­per­i­ence with it. The idea is to en­cour­age more hous­ing au­thor­it­ies to em­brace shar­ing.

What kinds of shar­ing would make sense with hous­ing sub­sidies?

One is learn­ing from the Airb­nb mod­el, which sug­gests there’s some ex­cess ca­pa­city in our hous­ing stock, and people are will­ing to take in boarders on a tem­por­ary basis, as it gives them ad­di­tion­al in­come. Es­pe­cially in high­er-cost cit­ies. I think it’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion: Would people be will­ing to take on boarders on a more per­man­ent basis, rather than vis­it­ors? There’s also a com­mun­al mod­el—smal­ler apart­ments with a shared com­mun­al space. You could think about shar­ing sub­sidies them­selves. Be­cause you’re only rent­ing a room, say, in a house, it would re­quire less sub­sidy, and we could the­or­et­ic­ally make the dol­lars stretch to more fam­il­ies.

How would people get matched for this shar­ing pro­gram?

It could be a plat­form not un­like Airb­nb’s plat­form—New York City used that kind of plat­form to match people after Su­per­storm Sandy. Or it could be a Craigslist kind of format. For ex­ample, many older adults live in homes with ex­tra space. They could of­ten be­ne­fit from the ad­di­tion­al in­come they could earn from rent­ing out those spaces and the com­pan­ion­ship—and per­haps mod­est as­sist­ance—that new res­id­ents would of­fer. Yet en­ter­ing in­to such ar­range­ments with strangers might be daunt­ing and even fright­en­ing. So there may be room for or­gan­iz­a­tions to help match older adults with ex­tra space with re­spons­ible young fam­il­ies and adults strug­gling to make ends meet in high-cost cit­ies.

Would this def­in­itely be bet­ter for the fam­il­ies in need of hous­ing sub­sidies?

I think we don’t know—it re­quires re­search. It de­pends on what the ef­fects are for those fam­il­ies who are ba­sic­ally doubled-up. How much bet­ter is that than not hav­ing any as­sist­ance at all? What we don’t know is what the long-term ef­fects of doub­ling-up are on chil­dren. That’s a crit­ic­al ques­tion we need to learn more about.

What would it take to make this hap­pen?

It would take some ad­just­ments to hous­ing-qual­ity stand­ards—like lim­its on how many people can live in an apart­ment based on the num­ber of bed­rooms. I think we should think about re­lax­ing some of those rules—but with cau­tion so we can mon­it­or the im­pact. Then there are rules to the sub­sidy pro­grams them­selves that we might want to be more flex­ible about. It could be that we make it easi­er for house­holds to use their vouch­ers in home-shar­ing situ­ations. It’s tech­nic­ally al­lowed by the pro­gram, but many loc­al au­thor­it­ies choose not to al­low it.

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