‘The housing crisis started 10 years ago . . . well before Airbnb’

Aisling Hassell talks about Dublin’s housing shortages, gender balance and company values

Aisling Hassell: the average income earned by an Airbnb host in Ireland is €3,500. Photograph: Alan Betson

Aisling Hassell: the average income earned by an Airbnb host in Ireland is €3,500. Photograph: Alan Betson

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It’s Wednesday lunchtime in Dundrum and tipping down with rain. The umbrella poking out of the door of the single-storey red-brick on the narrow laneway that is Victoria Terrace gives the first clue to the taxi driver that we’ve arrived at our Airbnb host.

Sarah Lafferty has rented her compact yet stylish two-bed house on Airbnb since 2012, using it to bolster her earnings as a yoga teacher cum interior designer. Off-season she charges €150 a night, rising to €190 per night at the height of summer.

“It gives me a full working salary to be able to cover all my bills and to go to the likes of Bali and study to be a yoga teacher, and take time to put together my interior design course,” she explains, adding that she lets the property out for about 70 per cent of the year while staying there herself for the rest of the time.

Why not just seek a full-time tenant?

“I wanted the freedom to be able to come home when I felt like it. I’m going to be here for five or six weeks around July. Freedom is really what Airbnb has given me.”

Sitting on the other side of the dining room table is Aisling Hassell, who leads Airbnb’s office in Dublin, doubling up as the head of global customer experience and leader of its regional hub for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Airbnb was set up in 2007 in San Francisco by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who rented out rooms in their apartment to earn extra cash to pay the rent. It has since grown into a global platform offering various forms of accommodation in 65,000 cities and many rural locations to travellers.

Still privately owned, the business is valued at more than $30 billion (€24.4 billion) and growing. It set up in Ireland five years ago. It employs some 500 staff here, with enough office accommodation to increase that number to 800.

Hassell prefers to fly below the media radar but Ireland’s housing crisis and controversy over the use of homes in Dublin for short-term lets such as Airbnb rather than longer-term rentals for people living and working in the city, has forced the Irish executive and her employer into the open.

If you were to believe some politicians, Airbnb is solely responsible for the housing/rental crisis in Dublin. It’s a similar story in other cities, Amsterdam and Barcelona among them.

Rental market

The use by landlords of apartments and houses for short-term lets became such a hot political issue here that the Oireachtas committee on housing, planning and local government examined the impact on the housing and rental market here, publishing a report in October.

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has set up a working group under the Re-Building Ireland programme, and the Government has spoken about introducing a licensing system for short-term lets.

This puts the wind up Airbnb, which has successfully established its business model in Ireland, with some 1.2 million people from abroad using the platform to find accommodation here last year. Some 22,000 people stayed with Airbnb hosts for St Patrick’s Day this year.

Airbnb estimates that about €506 million worth of economic activity is generated here annually from a combination of hosts’ earnings, and spending by their guests.

Not surprisingly, Hassell disagrees that Airbnb is part of the housing problem. “The housing crisis started 10 years ago with the financial crash when we stopped building houses,” she says. “So it started well before Airbnb and is of a scale way beyond Airbnb.”

She argues that a lot of statistics and “misinformation” about short-term lets are tossed around by policymakers. “We’ve tried to show the facts,” she says.

Dublin City Council told the committee that data from February 2017 showed some 6,729 listings on Airbnb for Dublin, with 5,377 located within the city area. Of these, 2,672 were listings for entire houses or apartments only.

While a substantial number, the committee acknowledged that it was just a “fraction” of the overall housing supply in Dublin city, which comprised 211,591 units in Census 2016.

As Hassell tells it, of the 5,200 people who had hosted at least once a year on Airbnb in Dublin, about 3,800 were entire home listings which could otherwise be candidates for a long-term rental.

Duration of letting

She argues that a host would have to let their home for more than 160 days a year for the enterprise to be worth more to them than a long-term let. Some 85 per cent of Airbnb hosts here let for fewer than 160 days, ruling them out of the equation, according to her figures.

“Only 550 rent it for more [than 160 days], the threshold to make it commercially viable to use it exclusively as a short-term let,” she argues.

She waters this down further by noting that some “standard B&Bs” fall into that bucket before arriving at a figure of 500 homes that might be considered as having been removed from the city’s housing stock.

“You’re actually talking about 500 homes, which in the scale of what we need to do in housing [build 25,000 or more units a year nationally] is a drop in the ocean.”

The Oireachtas committee noted that the data provided to it by Airbnb was a snapshot of a “random” Thursday in June 2017, and it had no way of knowing if this was truly representative of its business here. Hassell said it was a “representative day” of activity for the company.

Airbnb had been working on a memorandum of understanding with former minister for housing Simon Coveney but this was shelved when he moved to foreign affairs and Murphy set up his working group.

“We’re not part of that working group but . . . one of the things we are keen to ensure is that whatever legislation is coming is fit for purpose. We’re focused on solving the problem versus getting caught up in various issues.”

Hassell argues that whatever solution is arrived at should recognise that the average income earned by an Airbnb host in Ireland is €3,500.

“If there are professional hosts who are using the platform as a commercial proposition then we are all for fair and simple regulation on that. We should focus on that and not muddy the waters for the rest of the hosts that are making €3,500 a year and renting for only a portion of the year.”

Of course, Airbnb is selective in the information that it releases. It doesn’t publish any financial accounts for its Irish operation, preferring to wrap them up in its global figures.

Average earnings

Hassell said she didn’t know how much the highest earner in Ireland on Airbnb was pocketing from providing accommodation on the platform. How then can it compile data for the average amount earned by hosts here?

According to figures published last year by AirDNA, a US-based company that analyses the global Airbnb market, Dublin’s biggest earner was a six-bed apartment in the south city centre that generated €163,495 a year. And more than 10 Airbnb hosts in Dublin were earning in excess of €100,000 a year.

“We have no interest in biasing the data,” says Hassell. “There are a lot of different viewpoints but we have a vibrant host community who are using it [Airbnb] to sustain their living and stay in their homes. It’s not life-changing. It’s sustaining them in their homes, like Sarah.”

Are all of the Airbnb hosts declaring their income from the platform and paying tax on it?

Hassell says the company shares all the relevant financial information with the Revenue Commissioners once a year and has engaged EY and Taxback. com to help “educate” hosts about their legal obligations.

“We have a responsible hosting page, where we outline the tax rules and, as it comes to tax time, we send a notification to hosts that they’ve got to get their filing in,” she says.

What impact will the European Union’s proposed 3 per cent interim tax on digital sales have on Airbnb?

“I don’t think we know yet. We have a lot of people looking at it. It obviously will have an impact but the scale and the exact impact we’re still trying to figure out.”

Raised in Glasnevin, Hassell was one of six children. Her father was an executive with Calor Gas in the docks while her mother worked in a bank before leaving to raise her family.

Hassell went to Holy Faith secondary school in Glasnevin, and did an international baccalaureate in Wales (training as a surf lifeguard), a degree in mechanical and manufacturing engineering in Trinity and a masters in fluid dynamics.

Why engineering? “I liked science but didn’t want to be a science teacher,” she explains.

All at sea

Her love for sailing was formed while in college. “I got a job in Boston in the sailing centre, and took a boat down to the Caribbean and then took a year off.”

She spent nearly 14 years with cyber security company Symantec from 1996, rising to the position of vice-president of customer experience and online.

Having left in 2009, Hassell set up her own consultancy, during which time she bought a boat and sailed about 6,500 miles from Florida to Bora Bora.

“It was a bucket list thing. I was the skipper and had some crew.”

This included a rather hairy moment where the steering on the boat packed up and she found herself adrift in the Pacific in the dark of night. That’s when Hassell’s leadership skills kicked into action.

“I called my sister on the satellite phone and said: ‘don’t panic. We are adrift in the Pacific and I need you to call Seawind and ask them how I fix steering. This is what happened.’

“I got hold of the designer of the boat and told him what had happened. He was in a gale off the coast of New Zealand. He said: ’You disconnect this and then you do that.’ Actually, what he said worked.”

Senior roles with Vodafone and Sage followed for Hassell before she landed her role with Airbnb in February 2014 following “26 chats” with the company.

“There was a couple that were with Brian Chesky, the founder and CFO, who was in Dublin at the time setting up the site here and a couple with the landing team of tenured employees sent here to Lansdowne Road, our first building.

“I went over to the States and had about six group interviews plus I met all the founders. There’s also a series of core value interviews, based not on your functional skills but on your cultural fit. You typically have about two to three core value interviews.

“It’s an interesting model, something that the founders put in place and I think it really does work.”

‘Belong anywhere’

Those core values are: embrace the adventure; champion the mission; be a host; be a cereal (not a spelling mistake) entrepreneur.

According to Hassell, Airbnb is “breaking down barriers globally and is about creating a world where people can belong anywhere”.

Hassell seems to buy into the marketing guff around Airbnb, describing the founders as “missionaries”. She even wears a silver chain with an Airbnb Bélo (its corporate symbol) on it. “I prefer it to wearing an Airbnb T-shirt,” she says.

She talks with pride about diversity, the company having 40 nationalities employed in its Dublin office, speaking 30 languages.

And yet there is a startling lack of gender diversity within its global leadership group, with just two of the 11 people being women.

“It’s something that the founders are very conscious of and they’re actively recruiting a female board member as well . . . which I think will be great progress.”

She claims Airbnb is actually “biased towards women”, with 52 per cent of staff being female.

“We are very good at the entry level but as you go up the management chain, you get more fall-off. We have really talented leaders at my level right now, running product, running engineering, running research.”

We close with my asking her to project out five years for Airbnb in Ireland. “I would love Ireland to be a poster child for embracing the sharing economy,” she says. “Lord knows what new business models are going to come down the pipe. We almost need to say that we’re open for new business because we could be stuck in an old world of industries.”

She also wants Airbnb in Dublin to continue to grow. “Everybody knows that we’re the top-performing site across the company from a productivity standpoint. Dublin has been great for Airbnb and as a business model. We are always looking to add new functions here and we will continue to grow.”

CV

Name: Aisling Hassell

Job: Head of global customer experience at Airbnb

Age: 53

Lives: Howth

Family: Married with a daughter and a son

Hobbies: Sailing

Something we might expect: Whenever possible, she books with Airbnb when away on work or family holiday.

Something that might surprise: She has a masters degree in fluid dynamics.

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