Dr Mel Nowicki explores cultures of hotel living that have emerged within and worked to entrench the housing crisis.
Over the past decade, the term ‘’housing crisis’’ has become ubiquitous, particularly across Western Europe, North America and Australia. The financial crash of 2008, predominately caused by unviable mortgage lending practices, has completely altered our expectations of housing and affordability, particularly in the urban context. In cities such as London, Dublin, New York City and San Francisco, to name but a few, house prices have soared, the amount of genuinely affordable housing has plummeted, and cash-strapped local governments are increasingly beholden to property developers seeking the highest possible profit margins. This all has in part contributed to an ever-expanding gap between the rich and the poor in major global cities. Skyrocketing homelessness rates in cities that are also home to some of the world’s wealthiest people is one particularly disturbing outcome of the housing crisis.
These are issues we are all increasingly aware of, a grim constant on our newsfeeds. But one element that has received markedly less attention has been the role of hotels in both responding to, and in some cases exacerbating, housing crises. Hotels are, perhaps surprisingly, becoming increasingly prevalent players in the housing crisis in varied, yet interconnected, ways. Elements of this ‘’hotelisation’’ of the housing crisis include:
- The rise of hotels being used as temporary housing provision for homeless families, in part a consequence of local authorities struggling to find more appropriate properties. For example, in October 2018 in Dublin, a city with soaring rates of homelessness, 850 families (including 1926 children) were placed in hotels. Comparatively, in the same month 445 families (including 874 children) were placed in other forms of homeless accommodation[i]. This highlights the central role hotels are playing in local governments’ homelessness and temporary housing strategies.
- The increasing use of housing stock for short-term and holiday lets, rather than long-term secure housing, a trend made hugely popular by Airbnb. In cities such as Barcelona, L.A and London, tourists are increasingly coming into direct competition with local people over available housing. This has, somewhat inevitably, led to both a reduction in the availability of secure and affordable housing for residents of popular Airbnb cities, and rises in house prices as demand increases.
- Hotel-style services and amenities becoming an increasingly standardised feature of new apartment developments. For example, high-end developments such as The Amberly in Brooklyn offer amenities such as a sun-deck and ‘’lifestyle lounges’’, a 24-hour concierge, and state-of-the-art gym[ii]. This type of housing is popular with property developers due to its high profit margins in comparison to the construction of more affordable housing. This form of housing is also significant in the way that it sells hotel-style living as an aspirational form of day-to-day living.
All three forms of hotelisation, whilst seemingly touching on different issues, are connected, through the vehicle of the hotel by the ways in which they normalise particular ideas and assumptions around the housing crisis.
One manifestation of this is that particular ‘’users’’ of housing are valued over others. On the one hand, homeless families are left with little choice but to live in hotels, for weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years at a time. On the other, often in the very same cities, tourists and other visitors are staying in houses and apartments on a short-term basis. This is an example of the ways in which homeless families are devalued, their right to secure housing in the cities they call home given less credence than those with more social and economic capital who are temporarily passing through. This forms part of a wider normalisation of the housing crisis that legitimises increasing homelessness through a narrative that structures poverty as an individual, rather than systemic, failing. This line of reasoning assumes that if someone is homeless then it is their fault. This narrative of homelessness persists in spite of the fact that mine and many others’ research has shown that by far the main cause of family homelessness is eviction from the increasingly unaffordable private rented sector.
A second issue arising from the increasing role of hotels in housing markets is the way in which it further establishes an understanding of the temporary as not only a normal housing condition, but something to be actively celebrated, a lifestyle to be aspired to. This can be seen particularly in relation to the rise of hotel-like living that markets developments on the basis of streamlined living, such as rent that includes bills, cleaning and laundry services, and luxury amenities such as concierges, lounges and gyms. This blurring of hotels and housing is being furthered still by co-living companies such as ROAM[iii], who offer a service whereby members pay a monthly fee to live flexibly across a number of locations all over the world. These lifestyles are aimed almost exclusively at young professionals, often those who plan on living in the inner city for a relatively short period of time prior to having a family. This focus on housing wealthy professionals in high-end, hotel-like developments often comes at the expense of genuinely affordable housing for existing residents of the neighbourhood in question. Marketing hotel-like, expensive apartments to young, usually childless, professionals is ultimately far more financially viable for property developers than providing affordable housing for a range of household types. In short, it pays to sell a high-end, temporary lifestyle over an affordable, long-term one.
Finally, and perhaps most pertinently of all, all three examples highlight how housing is predominately understood as a financial product above and beyond its role as a home. Profiting from housing, be that through marketing new developments based on their hotel-like convenience, or landlords extending profit margins through renting their property via Airbnb rather than as longer-term lets, have become understood as valid and desirable uses of housing. Perhaps, ultimately the hotelisation of the housing crisis is particularly concerning because the line between hotels and housing is becoming ever more blurred. As housing becomes increasingly profitable through being marketed as a temporary luxury product, it is simultaneously losing its value as a place from which to build a sense of belonging and security: a home.