With ‘Backyard,’ Airbnb Hits Close to Home

Airbnb has its eyes on longer-lasting listings, and the company intends to start building its own futuristic, modular homes.

In an effort to mitigate corporations’ roles in our housing crisis, cities like San Francisco are cracking down on illegal Airbnb rentals and forcing the online service to purge users who don’t comply with strict local short-term rental regulations. But now, Airbnb may have a novel trick up its sleeve to avoid rental laws — building its own houses.

Last week, Airbnb announced a new project called Backyard, which they describe as “an initiative to prototype new ways that homes can be designed, built, and shared.” The San Francisco company, which is valued at around $30 billion and reportedly planning their IPO sometime next year, signaled they may be moving from the home-renting racket to the home-building business.

“We helped people activate underutilized space — from a spare bedroom or treehouse to your apartment while you’re away — and built a community that connected people around the world,” Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia says in a release. “With Backyard, we’re using the same lens through which Airbnb was envisioned — the potential of space — and applying it more broadly to architecture and construction.”

It’s tough to make logical human sense of what that corporate marketing-speak actually means. But Airbnb’s Backyard plans detail a specific intent to build “fully prefabricated homes,” and the mock-ups in their announcement appear to be modular units that can be easily adjusted to different dimensions.

The company says they intend to test prototypes of these units in Fall 2019, describing them as buildings that “could utilize sophisticated manufacturing techniques, smart-home technologies, and vast insight from the Airbnb community.”

Airbnb has been rightfully criticised for exacerbating housing shortages, but it’s great if they’re turning their sights to sustainable home manufacturing. And their new Backyard subsidiary has gone out of its way to call out wasteful construction practices.

That said, “smart-home technologies” and “vast insight” might give you reservations about moving into your own prefab tiny Airbnb house. The insights Airbnb has gleaned are described in the tech industry as Big Data — computational insights on millions of listings to determine things like which neighborhoods are more lucrative to rent within, or which features are most popular among searchers.

But, this data can also be used to gouge you on pricing based on credit factors, or sold to insurance companies to discriminate against people whose behavior indicates health problems.

And the promised smart home contraptions tend to be always-on recording devices that constantly capture audio and video of residents’ lives. It’s not difficult to imagine that someone buying a prefurbished Airbnb home might discover a few surveillance surprises they weren’t told would come embedded within their household.

Airbnb’s move into providing their own houses is reminiscent of Uber and Lyft’s car leasing programs, where they provide the actual goods for your sharing economy services. But Airbnb is not just building normal houses, they’re building modular, adjustable houses with more flexibility than traditional structures.

That means if you fall behind on your Airbnb mortgage, you can reconfigure your floor plan to create rooms to rent on Airbnb. And Airbnb will have great motivation to make sure you find yourself in exactly that situation.

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