Prague, Czech Republic – As the city is experiencing a dire housing shortage and prices are going through the roof, a small collective decided to strike back against Airbnb. By renting a big flat in Prague Old Town and turning it into a meeting and discussion platform, the group spent the weekend attracting attention to the housing crisis and raising awareness about one of its causes, short-term rentals.
“Not the shared economy, but an industry”
‘Alex and Tanya’ are not a young couple hosting visitors in their home and helping them discover the city while earning some money to make ends meet, as the usual Airbnb advertisement would like us to believe. They’re just two youngsters administrating 71 Prague apartments on Airbnb for the firm ‘Placid House s.r.o.’, which is owned by four Russian investors. As I went into their office on the prestigious Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague, they barely talked to me, just handing me a form to fill in and the keys. In only five minutes, I was out with the keys and would not see them again.
While the owners probably never saw the building their flat is located in on St. Henry Street, the first glimpse inside showed one of the impacts of short-term rentals: there was absolutely no soul, it was dirty and in a terrible shape, with almost no lights in the corridors. How could it be otherwise? Only three of the sixteen apartments are still inhabited by locals, the rest just sees an incessant flow of visitors coming in and out every few days. Inside the flat, the same kind of gloomy atmosphere reigned: minimal decoration, minimal furniture, minimal lighting.
It was Friday afternoon and our collective, ‘Stop Airbnb’, gets in the flat to start turning it into a protest platform against the Airbnb industry and its impact on the housing crisis in Prague. In the entrance hall, we set up a ten-panel strong exhibition about Airbnb & co. in Prague with all the facts about the situation: a 50% increase in rent prices in the last five years, about 15,000 flats on the short-term rental market, most of the Airbnb offers being whole flats offered all year-round (78%), most Airbnb owners having more than one offer (65%). This is not the shared economy, but an industry which is eating up Prague from the inside, with every fourth flat in the Old Town catering exclusively to tourists.
Short-term rentals in Prague: “living like a local”, really?
At 5 pm sharp, a gold and black banner floated down from the St. Henry Tower near the flat, saying ‘Stop Airbnb – Neighborhood instead of Profit’. As people stopped to take pictures, the first visitors started coming in, including Prague’s mayor Zdeněk Hřib, who has lately promised to take steps against the Airbnb industry. Inside the flat, surrounded by journalists and photographs, the mayor pledged some action, but was confronted by Petr Mestecký and another woman, Prague Old Town locals who have been fighting against the excesses of short-term rentals with their association ‘For a livable housing’.
The mayor listened to inhabitants describing the living hell they have been enduring since their neighbors have been replaced by tourists: woken up every weekend, aggressive drunk tourists in the building, destroyed entrance doors, vomit, urine and feces in the halls…
In the evening, after a lecture on the housing situation, food was served to the visitors, some music was played and people chatted here and there in all the rooms, but at 10 pm, everyone went quiet to watch a live video about the stories of those who were experiencing and suffering from the housing crisis. During the night, those of us who were staying overnight got to experience what inhabitants have to go through the whole year-round and are woken up twice by two groups of loud drunk tourists. The inhabitants would hardly agree that this is what Airbnb’s famous promise of “Living like a local” looks like.
In the morning, Airbnb appeared to panic following our action and called three times from the U.S. and Ireland, in addition to writing five emails and two messages on our Airbnb account. The protest with the neighbors’ support seemed to be more important to them than the incessant disturbances caused by obnoxious ‘alkoturisti’, as the locals call them here… While the company went on to cancel the reservation, we didn’t budge, and no one actually came to remove us. They perhaps understood that they didn’t need any more bad publicity?
The urgency of tackling Prague’s housing crisis
Ignoring the company’s reserves, we went on with a full day of lectures, discussions, debates and fun. In addition to talking about the possible regulation of Airbnb, we discussed the dramatic impact of Prague’s planned airport expansion, the importance of housing in worsening poverty problems and the failed policies that have created zones of social exclusion in Czechia.
While a lot of it was, truth be told, rather depressing, the community atmosphere we created by temporarily reclaiming one of Prague’s exclusively touristic area gave us additional strength and optimism. Neighbors, friends, random visitors, even some of the buildings’ tourists came by, while we also hosted some homeless ladies invited by the organization ‘Jako doma’ (‘Like at home’). They had a short break from the street to rest, shower, use the washing machine, get some hot food and coffee. Already, this made our whole action worthwhile.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast before putting the flat in order, as soulless as it was when we got there. We left the keys on the table, next to our unfulfilled tourist registration forms, which the company doesn’t even check contrary to its legal obligations. After those intense two days, we were tired, but also happy to have taken a stand not only for the exhausted surviving inhabitants of Prague’s Airbnb hotels, but also for all those who are suffering from the housing crisis across the country.
Hopefully, this will be a step towards not only regulating short-term rentals, but finally coming up with a complex set of policies to allow everyone to enjoy the comfort of a roof over one’s head…
Written by a member of the informal Prague-based movement ‘Stop Airbnb‘