Does anyone still remember Unhappy Hipsters, a Tumblr blog born in 2010, just months after the Great Recession officially ended? The concept was simple and irresistible. Each post contained a photo of a domestic interior from a Dwell-like magazine (or, just as often, from Dwell itself), and the photo had to include a person: a teenager lounging with a book on a nordic-looking wooden bed, a couple having a silent breakfast in a vast, concrete-floor kitchen. A caption accompanied each image, projecting a mix of smugness and existential angst onto the people occupying these impossibly streamlined spaces (“So focused on erecting a structure that would be impervious to atmospheric whims, he’d forgotten the obvious: an exit,” read a caption below an image of a man standing on a balcony of a glass-and-steel stilt house).
There’s nothing new about wanting to catch a glimpse of other people’s (nicer-than-yours) houses; what Unhappy Hipsters deftly added was an extra layer of vindictiveness to an otherwise common, aspirational voyeurism. Revisiting some of these old posts today, they feel at once naive and prophetic. In the intervening years, owning a house and designing one’s own space haven’t lost their allure as class markers and so-called #lifegoals. But they’ve also acquired a tinge of bitterness: you either can’t afford it (millennials, meet avocado toast!), can’t do it right (unlike everyone on Pinterest, Instagram, et al.), or risk trying too hard (at which point: surprise! You’re the Unhappy Hipster — in 2017, when both “unhappiness” and “hipsterism” have lost just about all meaning).
The way we organize and reshape our living quarters has always reflected, in some way, desires, hopes, and anxieties that transcended individuals. It was true when married couples started sharing the same bedroom and outhouses began to disappear in favor of indoor plumbing; it’s true today when we buy a vintage lamp or encounter a luxury bathroom almost the size of the bedroom it adjoins. Where does the current unease around the spaces we inhabit come from? What is unique about our attitude toward a supposedly universal concept like “home”? Here are four recent reads that try to address these questions.
We had a little trouble finding a place for the extended family to stay when we chose to meet in Sedona, Arizona for my mom’s 75th birthday. Most places wouldn’t book us for under a week thanks to a regional law limiting short term rentals. Several mid-size Arizona cities and have taken a stand against companies like Airbnb, which make renting a place for a family’s gathering a more lucrative choice than renting to locals. But for visitors and property owners, Airbnb has been mostly a good thing, and the state of Arizona recently agreed. Last year it overturned the local laws and made short term rentals legal.
It’s not news that Airbnb has caused limited rental options in places like San Francisco and New York City, but now residents in rugged places are feeling the pinch too. At Outside, Tom Vanderbilt looks at how home-sharing services are affecting the character of places like Bozeman, Boise, and Crested Butte.
From Barcelona to Boston, the world has been grappling with the arrival of home-sharing platforms. Amid any number of skirmishes—neighbor against neighbor, tourist against townie, lobbyist against legislator—cities have scrambled to get a handle on this “wild west” (one of the most common descriptors of the new home-rental landscape) and rushed to enact regulations. Everywhere you look, the battle is raging. In Flagler County, Florida, just north of Daytona Beach, 150 people turned out for a March meeting over a bill, backed by home-rental companies, that would limit how local governments can regulate short-term rentals, or STRs, as they are now frequently abbreviated. In Asheville, North Carolina, the issue proved so contentious that, late last year, a task force created to study STRs publicly splintered, according to the local Citizen-Times. In March, the city of San Diego—where residents of neighborhoods like Ocean Beach have decried the loss of local identity as rentals have proliferated—had to move a meeting on STRs to a bigger venue because of overflow crowds.
In the Mountain West—“God’s country, renter’s hell,” as one alt-weekly tagged it—where towns are already chronically beset by housing shortages, traffic problems, and the invariable ambivalence about sharing one’s slice of heaven with the tourists who help sustain it, the entrance of Airbnbs and VRBOs and HomeAways has heightened the tension. Some places, including Boulder and Denver, have passed tough regulations that permit only primary residents to rent out their properties for short periods. Other towns have taken the opposite tack, changing laws to allow previously illegal renting that was already on the rise, as happened late last year in Missoula, Montana.
You’ve seen this room before: bright walls; a coffee table or shelves made out of reclaimed wood; some fabric — a rug, curtains — featuring an abstract geometric pattern; a knockoff mid-century chair. Is it your local coffee shop or craft brewery? A co-working space? Your living room? At The Verge, Kyle Chayka looks at the recent ascendancy of “Airspace” aesthetics — a style of vaguely quirky, easily reproducible minimalism that we now find in Airbnbs across the planet.
In 2011, a New York artist and designer named Laurel Schwulst started perusing Airbnb listings across the world in part to find design inspiration for her own apartment. “I viewed it almost as Google Street View for inside homes,” she says. Schwulst began saving images that appealed to her and posting them on a Tumblr called “Modern Life Space.” But she had a creeping feeling something was happening across the platform. “The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity,” Schwulst says. “But so many of them were similar,” whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.
There was the prevalence of mass-produced but tasteful furniture, for one. “It’s kind of an extension of Ikea showrooms,” she says. But the similarities went beyond mass-production. The ideal Airbnb is both unfamiliar and completely recognizable: a sprinkling of specific cultural symbols of a place mixed with comprehensible devices, furniture, and decoration. “It’s funny how you want these really generic things but also want authenticity, too,” Schwulst says.
On Sunday, I shared stories about Airbnb. In my research, I read about Jennifer Katanyoutanant’s experiences traveling abroad, using Airbnb’s older (grittier?) brother, couchsurfing.com. Katanyoutanant had a disturbing stay with a Roman impostor who tries to get her into bed—literally—but she doesn’t want to give up the prospect of global friendship:
I had been disheartened when Milena emailed two days before I was supposed to show up to tell me she had an unexpected out-of-town emergency. She told me she’d handed hosting duties over to Raul, her roommate. Despite my disappointment, I still felt thankful that she had gone out of her way to help me out.
When I got off at the wrong stop, I had to walk a couple blocks back to where I agreed to meet him. My travel-sized rolling luggage bounced off the sidewalk every couple steps. I was relieved that I would soon get some rest, even if the company had changed. Twenty minutes later, a twenty-three-year-old guy showed up on a moped. He wore a long-sleeve tee that framed his muscular arms but did little to hide his protruding belly. He had small eyes, and a slightly hooked nose. He introduced himself as Raul, and seemed friendly enough.
But I began to worry. I was about to sleep in the same house with a man who was a complete stranger. Maybe this was a really bad idea.
“Hold on to my waist,” he said.
I climbed onto the moped and grabbed his shoulders instead.
It’s easy to get distracted while reading about Airbnb. First, the listings themselves range from luxurious to quaint, and if you have any sort of upcoming vacation planned … well, let’s say it’s a timesuck. Double if you have I-want-to-see-where-you-live voyeuristic tendencies. Second, Airbnb is giving away $1 million to customers who document their random acts of kindness, which is a hell of a headline and a bit of an oxymoron. Airbnb’s detractors are firm and its fans are rabid; Its prices, tempting. I’m planning a trip to Seattle in the summer—we’ll see where I end up sleeping. Here are five pieces about Airbnb hosts, the company’s founders, its guests and its implications for city politics.