What I’ve learned from home-swapping.

For the last few years, when my family takes vacations we have been swapping homes with people in the cities we visit. We did our first home swap a few years ago in San Francisco, last year we swapped with a couple in Paris, and this summer we’re swapping with families in Hamburg and Bergen, Norway.

It’s an amazing way to travel. Free accommodations mean that we can stay in expensive cities for longer. Being in a home means more space for us to enjoy than a hotel room affords, and we enjoy neighborhoods in cities we would not otherwise spend time in. We feel more like locals when we’re far from home.

Home-swapping makes me think of my early enthusiasm for the Sharing Economy. I still love the idea of sharing the idle capacity of things you own with other people, and owning things collectively through a co-op-like structure. This form of sharing creates reciprocal relationships and community, and reduces the need for so much stuff to be produced and consumed.

In the early days of the Sharing Economy, I was a major proponent of what this could mean for communities, for greater equity and environmental sustainability. I was surprised by how quickly the sharing economy gave way to value-extracting businesses like Uber and AirBnB.

I spend a lot of my working hours trying to ensure that we have a more equitable and sustainable local economy. I think about the velocity of money within a local economy so money recirculates and has a multiplier effect, creating more equitable distribution. Companies like Uber do provide work, but it is contract work, lacking the benefits that allow people a higher quality of life. In addition, profits are extracted out of local economies and into maximizing shareholder of people well outside where the work takes place.

I don’t use AirBnB anymore because I see the devastating effect it has on cities like Vancouver which have a housing crunch and near zero rental vacancy rates. I see in my own neighbourhood of Strathcona in Vancouver the rental units that used to provide stable, long-term rental to individuals and families get permanently taken off the market and turned into more profitable AirBnB accommodation. This isn’t having a healthy effect on the livability and viability of our city. (Vancouver has a vacancy rate near zero and 6.2% average annual rental rate increases.) That isn’t a form of sharing I recognize as ethical or desirable.

I sit on the board of Modo Co-operative, which allows 20,000 drivers to share over 600 cars. As a co-operative, there is no private ownership, those cars are a community asset. If Modo were to dissolve, the assets would be bequeathed to another community-owned organization like a not-for-profit. I work for Vancity, where half a million member-owners pool their money for local reinvestment. It is now a $26.4 Billion pool owned by the community, not private ownership. No one profits inequitably from those community resources. That is more in line with what I originally loved about the sharing economy.

So we have discovered home-swapping as a way of truly living out the early (and unfortunately false) promise of the sharing economy. No money changes hands, trust is required and reciprocity is created. I recommend it highly if you need your faith in humanity restored.

5 thoughts on “What I’ve learned from home-swapping.

  1. Sounds amazing but wonder what options there are for those of us that don’t own homes and hence can’t swap yet want to stay somewhere more unique than a hotel but also want to avoid AirBnB for the reasons you mentioned. Housesitting perhaps? Also, curious if sites like VRBO just contribute to the same issue that AirBnB does?

    • Hi Dana. You make such a good point, and I almost addressed it my post, so thanks for raising it. I wrote my post knowing that I write from a position of fortune that I have a home I can swap, not everyone has a home they can do that with. The sharing economy definitely has aspects of privilege that requires you to have something valuable to share. Important for us to recognize that.

      I like your proposition of house sitting, that could well be the equivalent from a reciprocity point of view.

      I don’t see any difference between AirBnB and VRBO. Perhaps there are, but I see them as indistinguishable.

  2. Hi William

    Your article is spot on in highlighting the differences between the truly sharing economy (e.g. home swapping) and basically commercial transactions (particularly short-term home rentals, with the devastation that has caused to communities in many cities where it is prevalent). Would you be interested in being a guest blogger on our blog, Travel the Home Exchange Way? http://homeexchangetravel.blogs.com/

    We would include a brief bio and link to your blog and would love to publish your post above (well, apart from the home-swapping link!) and with any changes you want. Our blog provides supplementary information for our home exchange service, Home Base Holidays. Our office is in London, UK and we started in 1985 (so long before ‘sharing economy’ was a trendy idea). In fact, I grew up on a farm in rural Ontario and am old enough to remember the threshing bees in summer (who knew what my parents and neighbours did naturally, just helping each other out, would now become a somewhat skewed trend!).

    Dana – house sitting is certainly an option you could look into (house sitting is an option on our site although most of our members are looking for direct home swaps). We do have members who rent their homes taking part in swaps but, of course, being able to do so depends on getting permission from your landlord so worth asking.

  3. Hi Lois, thanks for your comment. I’m happy to have you repurpose the post for your site. That’s kind of you.

  4. Many thanks, William – delighted to get your positive response to my suggestion! We’ll prepare copy and pass it by you to check and make any changes you want before publishing it on our blog shortly.

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