Recent findings of a Boston neighborhood study demonstrate a link between Airbnb presence and neighborhood crime. But while this is obviously disconcerting to Airbnb as a “brand,” it does not mean that Airbnb as an organizational entity is itself a prime factor in crime rates.
Nor does it mean you should cancel your planned vacation to an Airbnb rental.
[Editor’s Note: The authors of the study, published in PLOS ONE July 14, said their findings support “the notion that the prevalence of Airbnb listings erodes the natural ability of a neighborhood to prevent crime, but [do] not support the interpretation that elevated numbers of tourists bring crime with them.”]
The ingenuity of this study was its methodological use of Airbnb listings as a proxy measure for neighborhood instability in the examination of crime patterns.
There is a long sociological tradition documenting and explaining the link between neighborhood instability and crime. In 1942, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay were the first to publish their findings demonstrating and explaining the disorganizing influence of constant population turnover on a community’s ability to realize shared goals, namely deterring the activity of delinquent gangs.
In a nutshell, their thesis, supported by research over the years, was that a constant turnover of population was inheritably destabilizing to a community. Steady population turnover breeds a lack of familiarity and distrust among residents, preventing them from working together informally to control against crime’s occurrence.
A few decades later in 1979, Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson added to scholarship on the issue, noting how criminal opportunities presented themselves in a neighborhood depending on the level of motivated offenders, the number of suitable targets, and the level of adequate guardianship existed within a neighborhood.
Although the study using Airbnbs does not measure anything regarding the individuals using and listing Airbnbs, it does offer a glimpse into the routine activities of neighborhood life.
The density of Airbnb listings in a neighborhood offer a measure of the extent to which properties in a neighborhood are not long-term occupied. Such properties by their nature would appear to be less guarded, making them targets that are more attractive for potential criminals.
There are, nevertheless, limitations regarding what to infer from this singular study and for which Airbnb should take umbrage.
By the authors’ own acknowledgement, dense listings for Airbnbs reveal more about the possible obstacles already present in a neighborhood when it comes to crime prevention. Airbnb listings may reflect the absence of long-term stability in residency patterns and the recent attempts to commercialize on that reality.
It is important to echo the authors’ argument that their findings did NOT support the notion that Airbnb listings were attracting outsiders who brought crime with them, thereby contributing to any crime increases.
An earlier study of Airbnb listings across Florida counties found that such correlations with crime were tied to the type of Airbnb listings. That study found a positive correlation with crime, but in areas with greater concentration of Airbnb listings of shared-room types, rather than entire homes.
A correlation with shared-room types, versus single home listings, lends further support to the idea that Airbnb listings are possibly only indirectly linked to an increase in neighborhood crime.
The more important variable in the explanation is the initial level of transience in a neighborhood’s population that inhibits a community from realizing its goals.
Airbnbs can have a positive impact in a neighborhood by generating new streams of economic activity. Nevertheless, at what cost?
Are the owners of Airbnb listings actual residents of the neighborhoods they list? Are they outsiders to whom profits are siphoned out of the community? Do the dollars generated by users of Airbnbs outweigh any possible expenses that may come with a possible greater vulnerability to crime?
Research on the possible negative implications with reference to this form of shared or gig economy is ongoing.
Communities should guard against having an alarmist reaction to such early findings, but community leaders would also be wise to establish oversight bodies and consider restrictions on the types and forms of listings that can be available in their neighborhoods.
There have been a significant number of potential beneficiaries to the Airbnb marketplace, but the form of community in which such activity takes place is the better predictor of its eventual community impacts on local crime rates.
Additional reading: “Masked Trio Breaks into NYC Airbnb as Guests Were Sleeping”
Kent Bausman, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology in the Online Sociology Program at Maryville University in St. Louis. An expert in economic inequality and criminology, he recently published a research study in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology that links employment volatility to higher levels of criminal activity.