British Columbia·Analysis

Debate over Airbnb and Uber reveals hypocrisy of 'sharing' economy

Communities like Vancouver are struggling to deal with the social fallout from businesses like Uber and Airbnb. Is "sharing" really the best way to describe a new economy that's making a handful of people very rich?

Communities struggle to deal with social disruption caused by rapid growth of new business models

Vancouver city council has bucked a trend among North American cities, such as San Francisco, above, by rejecting Uber. But most feel the growth of the service is inevitable. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

I grew up steeped in what might be termed the "sharing economy" of its day.

It's probably technically better described as 'the "grey market." Whatever — a label's a label.

If you knew someone who could get you eggs, give you a haircut, or rewire your home at a fraction of the over-the-table price, surely only a fool would shell out the extra cash. The produce was fresh, you knew where to find the electrician if things went wrong, and as for haircuts, well, we're talking about the '70s.

I'm willing to bet it's an economy millions of Canadians are familiar with.

The taxman may have been cheated out of a few bucks, but the small amounts people saved by going off book from time to time wasn't going to bankrupt the country.

The difference between then and now — obviously — was technology. The guy who fixed your car on the sly was never going to harness the power of social media to threaten the global automotive repair business.

Nor was the plumber, the tile layer or the electrician; they all worked during the week for the overcharging businesses they undercut on the weekends.

Taxi drivers across the country have railed against Uber's 'ride sharing' service. In Vancouver, drivers say they have to make a living. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

If the current debate over how to regulate services like Uber and Airbnb reveals anything, it's hypocrisy on all sides of this issue.

Industries that have profited handsomely from a market monopoly for decades are suddenly pleading for support from the people they've fleeced. Homeowners with dollar signs in their eyes are appalled at the prospect of being taxed for turning their suites into hotel rooms.

And most of all, there's the hypocrisy of applying terms like "sharing" and "new" to an economy that may better utilize resources, but still generates a lot of wealth for a handful of people tapping into the age-old custom of making money by helping someone else cut corners.

Affordable housing squeezed out

Ulrike Rodrigues showed up at a Vancouver city council meeting this week to complain about a neighbour who rents 10 out of the 60 suites in her building on Airbnb. Those spaces used to be affordable housing.

"It really is a hotel business in a residential building," she told CBC News.

Forget the explanations, justifications and branding: that sounds like the basic truth.

Worried that already expensive and limited rental stock is being eaten up, Vancouver councillors have asked city staff to look at ways to regulate and presumably cool the online short-term rental market.

Ulrike Rodrigues, who lives in an apartment in East Vancouver, says one owner of multiple units in the building is conducting a hotel business through Airbnb. (CBC)

Note that they're not trying to shut it down entirely. This is the same council that rejected Uber and even the prospect of new taxis last fall, despite a staff report that said the city is starved for cabs.

The difference has been strong lobbying from a powerful taxi industry, which claims it's not opposed to Uber, but just wants its drivers to "play by the same rules" as cabbies.

Which presumably means "charge the same prices."

It's hard to argue against anyone's right to make a living, but at the same time, the value of taxi licences in Vancouver has been notoriously inflated. Hailing a cab is not for the short of time and fares are not cheap: demand for Uber exists for a reason.

Conversely, the hotel lobby might be strong, but it's no match for the thousands of homeowners — and taxpayers — who studies show are generating more than 4,000 Airbnb listings in Vancouver.

Homeowners told city council they rely on Airbnb to pay the mortgages needed to buy into Vancouver's out-of-control housing market. Everyone knows someone who has turned a suite into a by-the-night rental for greater profit and less hassle in terms of long-term renters.

There's no lack of double-speak on this issue as well.

It's hard to appear suitably concerned about low-income housing and affordability while silently celebrating your paper status as a millionaire homeowner.

Formerly known as 'employees'

Harvard Law School author and researcher Yochai Benkler was one of the first to look at the potential for information technology to allow forms of networking that might transform the economy and society.

He wrote 10 years ago in glowing terms about the revolutionary power of "loosely or tightly woven collaborations" to change fields ranging from software development to investigative reporting.

But lately, Benkler has been warning against what he calls the "Uber-ification" of services; he argues that what's emerging is not "sharing" but an "on-demand" economy for everything ranging from dog walking to grocery buying.

In the process, he says, regular folks are using their homes and cars to take the places of "the people formerly known as 'employees.'" And affordable rental housing becomes someone else's problem. 

In a nutshell, Benkler says that despite all the warm and fuzzy PR, the social element that sparked the explosion of networking apps is giving way to greed.

It may be disruptive and it may not be business as usual, but it's business all the same.

"It's not impossible to build systems that will incorporate the social into the economic," Benkler explains in a short 2015 video of a presentation to the World Economic Forum.

"It depends on what firms do … it depends on what policy does; but it is a critical requirement that we build systems that re-incorporate the social into the economic."

Getting your share?

Of course, lots of people feel like they've been part of yet another sharing economy for years, one highlighted by secrets revealed by the Panama Papers this week.

You "share" your work with an employer who profits from your labour. 

You "share" a large portion of the money you do earn with the Canada Revenue Agency, while the wealthy hide theirs in offshore shelters.

And as you "share" what's left, everyone from the bank to the car dealership seems to get rich.

Is it really any wonder you're looking to get your share?


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.