Hindrances to Access to Housing in a Tourist City, pre- and post-COVID19: evidence from Barcelona

By Antonio Paolo Russo and Riccardo Valente, University Rovira i Virgili

This piece illustrates some of the early results from the study of Barcelona as an exemplary ‘overtouristed’ city in which access to affordable housing and its relationship with employment is at stake. Our insights seek to influence the debate about policy options for an inclusive port-pandemic recovery.

The SMARTDEST project (H2020 ref. 870753) focuses on forms of social exclusion emerging in the context of urban areas that are the hub of global mobilities, such as tourism.

Barcelona is one of the most celebrated examples of invention of a successful tourist city through urban planning, place marketing, cultural valorisation and innovative governance since the early 1990s; but also one that came to be subject to the highest level of tourism pressure, feeding a wide societal and political debate on social justice in the ‘overtouristed’ city. Besides, as a place increasingly dependent on tourism jobs and businesses (and especially so after the economic downturn of the 2008 financial crisis), Barcelona has been severely exposed to the next systemic crisis, that of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The key focus of the SMARTDEST case study in Barcelona is on housing affordability and its enmeshment with labour conditions in the tourist sector. The key assumption is that tourism growth produces benefits that are unevenly distributed across society and spatial scales, but it also entails social costs that affect long-term residents, for whom access to housing is becoming increasingly difficult, or tourism sector workers, that are more than others subject to precarious employment conditions and a high degree of ‘invisibility’ or informality.

Figure 1. Residential stability in the 73 neighbourhoods of Barcelona (2016-2019)

Our early results from a pre-pandemic analysis show how the progressive penetration of short-term rentals promoted via platforms like Airbnb is subtracting a sizable share of the housing stock from the long-term residential market. In our analysis, the spread of Airbnb accommodations during 2014-2019 period, as well as the levitation of housing prices and rental fees, were found to be associated with a reduction in the share of long-term residents (those who were living in the same neighbourhood for more than 5 years), an effect that is not significant in relation to the spread of the conventional accommodation supply. Discounting for other factors which may explain population change, we observe a high degree of residential instability in tourism-intensive neighbourhoods, with residents displaced to another neighbourhood or out of the city altogether (See Fig. 1).

We also looked at patterns of residential mobility among tourism workers between 2013 and 2019. Our analysis reveals that being employed in tourism-related sectors is associated with lower incomes and higher rates of precariousness compared to employments in non-tourism sectors. Such unfavourable labour conditions have a particular impact on female workers, that are more likely to be displaced out of Barcelona, while maintaining their main occupation in the city.

To conclude, affordable housing is a critical asset to ‘remain citizen’ in a tourist city like Barcelona, as is for many other cities that are studied in SMARTDEST. This seems to be increasingly a hindrance for vulnerable sectors of the population, and it is remarkable that the very model that feeds tourism growth also produces an engrossing share of precarious workers, those more likely to be affected by rising housing costs.

In the light of the above, pursuing the objective of reaching pre-COVID19 levels of tourism activity is likely to reproduce past exclusionary trends. If the global pressure on the housing market has only temporarily subsided (at the end of the summer season of 2021 evidence seems to point at a sharp reprise of the activity of short-term rentals), the situation of tourism workers and other vulnerable sectors has worsened substantially, because of high rates of unemployment. The post-pandemic future of Barcelona thus may a bleak one, in which social gaps are heightened and the very sense of social cohesion is at risk. In this sense, recovery efforts need to be based on a different approach to the planning and regulation of tourism mobilities and their local impacts, aligning with Sustainable Development Objectives like the reduction of social inequalities, which may imply steering away from a growth model which has shown all its limitations both in the pre-pandemic period and in its current developments.

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