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Could Airbnb Help Solve The Problem Of Vacant Housing?

A group of tactical urbanists wants to revive empty homes and offer them as a place to stay.

Six years after the foreclosure crisis started, nearly 18 million houses are sitting vacant in the U.S. Could some find new life as Airbnb businesses?

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While visiting Akron, Ohio, to help redesign a rundown block in a neighborhood near the city’s downtown, a team of “tactical urbanists” from an organization called Better Block noticed how hard it was to find a place to stay, despite the fact that there were empty houses everywhere.

“We couldn’t find a hotel in the neighborhood, and there weren’t really any downtown,” says Jason Roberts, founder of Better Block. “There was only one. At the same time, we saw a city report saying the population is decreasing and there’s this excess housing stock–there’s less tax revenue to take care of our existing infrastructure, but it will also bring down neighborhoods pretty quickly. Whenever there’s three or four houses that don’t sell, surrounding houses lose their value as well.”

Shane Wynn

The team wanted to work on another project in Akron, and had an inspiration: Why not commandeer one of the vacant homes as a prototype for a new Airbnb business? As a bonus, they realized that it could double as a community center for the neighborhood’s growing refugee population from Bhutan–with Bhutanese herbs growing in a community garden in the backyard, maybe, and Bhutanese food cooked in a community kitchen.

“When people come to Akron–what I look for when I travel, and what many people look for, they’re not looking for a stale, generic hotel branch, people are looking for a unique experience,” says Roberts. “So we thought a fun thing to build off with this community is the interesting refugee population here, that has a very specific identity, and kind of bring that to the context of a hostel or hotel.”

Maria Mancinelli

The Airbnb hotel will be set up and tested as a model to potentially use in other cities, much the way that Better Block works on bigger neighborhood projects now. The group started in Dallas in 2010, when Roberts and a group of neighbors experimented with transforming a single rundown block with DIY bike lanes, potted plants, sidewalk cafes, and pop-up versions of the stores they wished were there. That project–completed in a weekend–led to permanent changes in the city, and led other communities to replicate it around the world.

Now, if the vacant house Airbnb is successful, they’ll share the idea through the same type of DIY kit they share for Better Block. “We’re interested in ideas to spark economic redevelopment,” says Roberts. “We’re going to test out the idea, mock it up , build it out, and get it up and running and document everything we do. Once we do that, we’ll have a guide that others can use in their own cities.”

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The transformation of the house in Akron will begin in June. The project was one of this year’s Knight Cities Challenge winners.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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