Hundreds of thousands of tourists are flocking to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games. In order to meet the shortage of hotel accommodation, the city has made the online rental platform Airbnb an official partner for the games. The company now lists 25,000 units in Rio – a massive rise from only 900 in 2012.
With Brazil’s economy in the doldrums, some have praised the platform as a way for Cariocas (residents of Rio) to make extra money during the games. Nowhere would this be more welcome than in Rio’s favelas – neighbourhoods that are home to some of the city’s poorest inhabitants.
From the beachfront neighbourhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, one can easily spot favelas such as Babilonia or Vidigal, perched on the steep hills surrounding Rio’s South Zone. Favelas are often located close to more affluent areas and are home to many labourers, security guards, cooks, drivers and nannies, who are employed by their better-off neighbours.
The favelas house up to a quarter of Rio’s population – they are still considered no-go areas by some and access to public services and social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals is still limited. For decades these neighbourhoods were hidden from official maps of the city – a reflection of the neglect they received from the authorities.
These neighbourhoods have long held a fascination for visitors to Rio and, since the early 1990s, tourists have ventured into some of the favelas in the South Zone on walking tours. Over the years, this trend has increased and today it is estimated that at least 50,000 visitors go on tours in Rio’s favelas each year.
Favela tourism has also diversified; increasingly, visitors are seeking out favelas for their nightlife and markets – and sometimes also to find accommodation. Some hostels have been operating in favelas for well over a decade. But now online rental platforms (ORPs) such as Airbnb have given residents of the favelas the chance to extend their hospitality personally by renting out their own rooms or apartments to tourists.
This development comes at a time when cities across the world are debating the significance of ORPs. Airbnb and similar ORPs are part of what their proponents call “the sharing economy”. According to research conducted by Airbnb, ORPs can allow people on modest incomes to generate some extra income.
A sharing economy?
But some accuse providers such as Airbnb of accelerating gentrification by increasing the price of real estate. In particular, critics point out that OPRs encourage the transformation of whole apartment houses into permanent short-term rental flats by commercial providers, because such arrangements are more profitable than long-term tenancies.
In New York City – one the world’s largest ORP markets – the number of rooms and flats offered on Airbnb alone has now reached around 35,000. In response, lawmakers in New York State have recently approved new legislation, which bans the renting of whole apartments for periods less than one month, in order to stop short-term rentals.
In Berlin, a similar law came into effect in May 2016, which requires everyone who wants to rent out their whole apartment to get a commercial licence from the city council.
The view from Rio
So far, ORPs have attracted little controversy in Rio de Janeiro. Unlike in New York or Berlin, there has been no comprehensive research on the effect of ORPs on the housing market, particularly in favelas. So, for the time being, Airbnb’s claim that ORPs allow Rio’s residents to make ends meet in a situation of economic uncertainty goes unchallenged.
Such effects would clearly be welcome in favelas, but from what we know so far, they seem rather unlikely. Only two favelas – Vidigal and Rocinha – are listed on AirBnb as neighbourhoods. There are a number of additional listings in smaller favelas, often with pre-existing tourism infrastructure.
There are now about 250 listings on Airbnb in favelas across the city – which makes up just 1% of the overall listings for Rio de Janeiro. It seems probable that the low uptake of Airbnb is caused by the lack of spare space in the favelas.
There is a clear concentration of Airbnb favela listings in Vidigal, which has around 180 ads. Yet many of these are provided by brokers – not by individuals – which we can tell by the fact that they are offering multiple units. Some places are even offered under company names – another indication that these operations are commercial by nature.
Faced with the expansion of ORPs, there seems to be a growing consensus between many cities that intelligent regulation is needed to limit or prevent their negative impacts. And Rio is no exception: Vidigal – an area which has long been subject to gang violence and police “pacification” interventions – is already facing significant pressures from gentrification. Without proper regulation, ORPs are likely to intensify gentrification and displacement in favelas, rather than provide income support for Rio’s poorest residents.