"Democratizing Capitalism": Unpacking Discourses of Precarity and Community in Toronto's Regulation of Airbnb

Authors: Sean Grisdale*, University of Toronto
Topics: Urban Geography, Tourism Geography, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: platform capitalism, sharing economy, gentrification
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 4:00 PM / 5:40 PM
Room: Regent, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


With access to huge amounts of venture funding, Airbnb is expanding rapidly, especially into major urban centres. While the company argues its platform empowers owners and renters alike to “unlock” new sources of household revenue by “sharing” their residence with short-term renters, a growing array of academics and activists argue it is a significant driver of gentrification and housing price inflation. Caught between the contradictory interests of property owners and renters, business interests and displaced communities, politicians are compelled to craft regulations addressing the increasing popularity of short-term rentals, quickly and with few precedents to draw on. Contributing to literatures on policy mobility, digital geographies, and cognitive-cultural and financialized capitalism, I consider the novel ways in which Airbnb relies on public relations outreach as they try to convince both citizens and policy makers of their model’s social usefulness. This research draws on spatial and discourse analyses and interviews with key regulatory stakeholders in Toronto, describing how the company positions itself as an active participant in the crafting of public policy. Furthermore, taking up Nick Srnicek’s theory of the “hyper outsourced,” or “lean platform” business model, I note how Airbnb outsources part of its lobbying effort, employing grassroots organizing strategies to politicize its host communities. Furthermore, as experiences with economic precarity animate perspectives across the range of stakeholders involved, and in decidedly contradictory ways, I note how this discussion is expressive of greater discussions around affordable housing supply in the wake of years of asset-based approaches to social welfare.

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