Who is this man in my house?: London women are finding a potentially dangerous lifeline in Airbnb

·5 min read
‘I saw a guy creeping out of the room and then down the stairs and out the door very quietly’  (Getty)
‘I saw a guy creeping out of the room and then down the stairs and out the door very quietly’ (Getty)

Anna, a single woman in London subletting her flat on Airbnb, arrived home to find a man sneaking out of her bedroom. She had rented her room to a woman on the holiday rental site, but there was no mention that a man would be staying with her. “I went into my sitting room and just as I was taking off my jacket, I saw a guy creeping out of the room and then down the stairs and out the door very quietly,” she says. She shared her story with researchers George Maier and Kate R Gilchrist from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), who have looked into the intersection between Airbnb and rentier capitalism – or, essentially, what happens when key types of capitalist assets are owned by a select few. In her statement, she says she felt uncomfortable and like her privacy had been invaded.

Anna is one of a small number of the capital’s female property owners now surviving via Airbnb – even subletting their own rooms while they sleep in the lounge – in order to make ends meet. In London’s broken housing market, which has now been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis, women are going to drastic measures to keep a roof over their heads and pay their bills.

When Airbnb first launched in 2008, it was marketed to travellers and has seen over 1 billion guest arrivals to date. However, it’s now pivoted to include short and longer-term lets. According to Airbnb, more than a third of hosts across the UK say they do so to afford the rising cost of living, and nearly a third say the additional income helps them make ends meet. Women now comprise up to 56 per cent of all global Airbnb hosts. In the UK, 61 per cent of all Airbnb hosts are women. Meanwhile, 21 per cent more women than men joined the site as hosts in 2021. For some, it has meant an entry onto the property ladder.

Maier says he came across the trend of women subletting their rooms while researching the platform economy, which includes Amazon, Uber and Airbnb. “With Uber, I observed that the vast majority of drivers in London were men, whereas Airbnb was actually skewed the other way and I found that really interesting,” he explains. “More women were doing Airbnb hosting than men. That’s when I contacted Kate and said there’s this gendered phenomenon that bucks the trend.”

Among those hosting on Airbnb are a number of disabled women, who face higher levels of unemployment, and who the study says have “relied on the top-up income from Airbnb to avoid destitution”. Camden-based homeowner Nikki worked 80-hour weeks as a film and television productions scout before she burnt out, developed myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), and was unable to work. Since 2012, she’s rented out her sofa bed in the lounge room. Airbnb has been a lifeline. “I have a chronic handicap that meant I couldn’t generate enough money,” she says. “Women in this country have been notoriously struggling to provide long-term pensions for themselves, [or] a long-term income for themselves. Airbnb is a way of counteracting that struggle.”

The research found that some women are taking in male guests despite the fact that they are worried about the potential threat of sexual harassment or assault. In the study, one woman reported that she was forced to accommodate a male guest who made sexualised comments to her daughter. An Airbnb spokesperson would not comment on this specific incident but said the platform has a 24-hour safety line available in-app for hosts and guests, and a 24/7 local emergency services in-app feature.

According to a study from the University of Colorado released last year, 2 per cent of Airbnb hosts experienced race, gender, LGBT+ and disability discrimination in 2021. Meanwhile just under this figure (1.9 per cent) reported guests damaging property. London ranked 18th highest for guest complaints, with an average of 30.9 complaints per 1,000 Airbnbs.

In the LSE study, Maier acknowledged the privilege that these women had by owning their own homes and being able to rent out rooms in the first place. He noted that middle-class women found renting their rooms gave them “greater independence”, while those on lower incomes saw it solely as a means to “survive in an expensive housing market”. However, he added that without the top-up provided by renting out their rooms, both groups could face “economic destitution”.

“[Women] are using [Airbnb] because they have no other means of surviving – it’s the only way they can afford to live in a city like London with this growing housing cost crisis,” Maier says. “If you go out as a woman to earn an income in London, that income is not going to allow you to be housed in London a lot of the time. So women are having to turn to Airbnb as a way to top up their income.”

The women in our study were often victims of the housing crisis

Vanessa, 34, says that she turned to Airbnb after being hit with a £4,500 service charge on her one-bedroom flat. “I didn’t realise I would have to pay,” she says. “They didn’t make it clear”. Through Airbnb, she now earns about £2,500 a year which goes into a separate bank account to pay for unexpected costs.

“London is experiencing a housing affordability crisis – the women we spoke to were struggling in a market where owning a property is becoming increasingly difficult,” Maier says. “In addition, renting in London has also seen steep price increases over recent years – making it harder for people to get by from month to month.”

Maier concluded the study by writing that, while Airbnb has provided “significant opportunities for those who are unable to engage in traditional employment”, it’s “often come at the cost of dispossession of their living space”. Intimate spaces, he adds, are becoming “necessary income”, and that’s not a good thing.

As the cost of living crisis worsens, it will mean that more women continue to put themselves in vulnerable positions just to make ends meet. “The women in our study were often victims of the housing crisis,” Maier added. “Renting out their own bed while sleeping on the sofa, accepting personal risk – because they felt like they had no other option.”