British Columbia·Point of View

How the sharing economy is catching on

The sharing economy is part tax dodge, part financial opportunity for those with stuff to rent, but it's really not all about sharing.

Airbnb founder went from indebted student to head of multi-billion dollar company in six years

The sharing economy

8 years ago
Duration 10:50
The new sharing economy includes everything from pooches to power tools, but it has critics. Our Chris Brown takes a closer look.

When my neighbour Jim shares his power washer he does so knowing that I'm happy to loan him my table saw when he needs to cut up a piece of plywood.

Between us there's a fence but certainly no middle man collecting fees. We call it sharing.

Listening to the creators of the biggest, most profitable "sharing economy" websites, you really have to wonder how we've come to describe this new method of doing business in this way.

And the need to pay attention is no small matter. Your neighbours are doing it.

Only six years ago Nathan Blecharcyk and two friends were indebted students. Today they run a multi-billion dollar company that many say is upending the traditional way of doing business. (CBC)

Take Airbnb, for example. Nathan Blecharczyk is a Harvard-educated software engineer. At 31, he is also one of the world's youngest billionaires.

He and his two former roommates, Brian Cheskey and Joe Gebbia, founded Airbnb in 2008, after they blew up some air mattresses and charged some out of town conference-goers to crash at their apartment.

With a thousand bucks in their pockets they thought there must be tens of thousands of others who would be willing to do the same.

At first, investors were wary, says Blecharczyk.

"Many investors questioned whether it was a business at allMany people we approached in 2008 thought to themselves, 'I certainly wouldn't do this.' And if so, it must be a very small market.

"Well, we've proven them all totally wrong."

A business is born

Indeed, it turns out there are millions of homeowners who are willing to rent out a room, suite or their whole home on a short-term rental basis.

Airbnb takes a small cut from both the homeowner and renter.

In San Francisco, the economy created by apartment-sharing is creating some real conflicts pitting neighbour against neighbour. (CBC)

In return, both owner and renter get some guarantees, albeit limited, that the homeowner will be paid promptly and for the renter there's a guarantee that the place is pretty much as advertised.

After each stay, both sides review the other and then post those reviews for all to see — thus the partiers who make big messes get weeded out pretty fast.

 The success of Airbnb has caught on big time. In Blecharczyk's words, "Our success has inspired a whole new class of companies. And this is has been called the sharing economy, or peer-to-peer economy, and I think that's great."

Sharing economy not working for everyone

 But, great for whom?

The city that is home to Airbnb's corporate headquarters is also arguably the headquarters of this new way of doing business. Welcome to San Francisco, where the mayor and councillors have been getting an earful.

Take a recent, 11-hour public hearing featuring hundreds of citizens, some in tears, some angry, all raising their voices over the fallout from everybody sharing a room or two. 

Whole neighbourhoods zoned single family are suddenly more akin to hotel row. In apartment buildings strangers are handed the keys to the front door.

University lecturer and community activist Calvin Welch says the fallout from the sharing economy is putting pressure on low income housing and resulting in the eviction of some renters. (CBC)

In low-rent districts, renters are being booted in favour of more lucrative short-term stays. Granted, on the other side, homeowners sideswiped by the financial meltdown are using the extra income to pay their mortgages and feed the kids.

One irate resident is Calvin Welch, a self-described "old hippy" living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. He is gob-smacked by the notion that this peer-to-peer economy can be described as sharing. 

"That's the amazing thing about this whole sharing economy. How much the business model depends upon illegal actions. Actions that are actually illegal," said Welch. 

Low income homes threatened

Standing outside a low-rent hotel on the fringe of the business district, Welch, in animated tones, says, "There are about 19,000 of these units in San Francisco. They are critically important for seniors and single folks. And now what's happened? They are being converted on the sly to Airbnbs."

A San Francisco Chronicle investigation discovered two-thirds of Airbnb rentals in the city were not rooms in homes, but entire apartments, and in areas where short-term rentals are restricted.
Shifu's owner is loaning her lovable pet via a sharing website to those who want to borrow a dog for a few hours. (CBC)

The ride share service called Uber is also headquartered in San Francisco. A recent local article stated taxi rides have fallen an astounding 65 per cent as folks who need rides shift to Uber and other similar companies that allow anyone with a car to become a temporary taxi driver.

In Vancouver you can log onto the Tool Library and share tools. Or, if you're really a trusting soul, log onto Part Time Pooch and offer your family pet for a shared walk with a stranger. 

The creator of that website is collecting fees much like the folks at Airbnb.
Hillary Hennigar is a millennial who, living on a modest budget, says the sharing economy allows her to borrow stuff she otherwise can't afford.
​Is that the
 true engine powering the sharing economy? 

Hillary Hennigar is a young woman who's working hard to make ends meet in an expensive city, and she uses sharing websites for a long list of needs: from her car, to tools, travel accommodations and office space.

She can't afford to buy any of that stuff. That ability of the smart web-entrepreneurs to link her to folks who want to rent their stuff is what this is all about. 

Just don't call it sharing, and don't tell Jim he can rent his power washer to strangers for a fee.


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