Investophilia: Speculation, Home-Sharing and Care across Political Borders

A full-wall real estate advertisement located in the passport security area at Athens airport. Photograph by Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, 21 December 2019.

Investophilia: Speculation, Home-Sharing and Care across Political Borders, is an ethnographic project that explores how the intersection of real estate speculation and platform-mediated home-sharing is reorganizing the meanings and materialities of care and how they are distributed across populations and territories. Like waste and toxicity, which flow across borders even when people cannot, platform-mediated home-sharing and its socio-material worldings are not geographically isolated phenomena. Airbnb alone currently features more than seven million listings worldwide, including in over 100,000 cities. booking.com, its biggest competitor, features 6.2 million homes.

While platforms like these are often engines of precaritization, things may be more complex where people are already hyper-precarious from histories of dispossession and displacement. Under some conditions, home-sharing platforms can serve as precarity’s unexpected mitigator, for example. One way in which the effects of platform-mediated home-sharing on care and transboundary movement became apparent to me was when, through my fieldwork for Homing Austerity, I learned that Greek Airbnb rentals had become commodities for sale as real estate, attracting foreign investment especially from China, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Israel. During fieldwork in Israel/Palestine, I also discovered that investors in Greek Airbnbs are not only Jewish Israelis (although many are), even though in Greece Israeli investors tend to be glossed collectively as “Jews” (a word often expressing anti-semitic sentiment). Instead my fieldwork showed that many of these “Jews” investing in Greek real estate are actually Christian Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Interviews revealed that discriminatory Israeli building restrictions and a growing sense of alienation from Muslim Palestinian communities with whom they live, these Christians seek respite for themselves and build systems of care for their families in overseas real estate that can also offer them vacations among people they imagine as fellow Christians (i.e. Greeks). Other investors in Greek short-term rentals include Jewish Israelis for whom Athens apartments offer a cheaper and less politicized investment than does the historically cheaper housing available in government-subsdized West Bank settlements. The ability of both types of often middle class Israeli citizen investors to expend “extra” cash on foreign real estate is predicated on the security they can feel that the socialized Israeli state will cover the cost of healthcare, retirement and education for their children.

When Israeli investors arrive in Greece to spend time in the homes they purchase and design, they end up living alongside, or sharing realtors with, Turkish investors, for example, who are often dissidents at risk of state violence in Turkey seeking protection for their families. They may encounter Egyptian investors fearful of deflation of family wealth, and they will certainly see and hear about the thousands of citizens of China, where property and other freedoms are subject to the whims of the state, who are investing in Greek real estate in part to benefit from Greece’s “Golden Visa” program. Golden Visas incentivize middle class and elite, non-EU citizens to invest at least 250,000 euros in Greek real estate in exchange for permanent residency for them and their families. Investophilia asks how platform-mediated home-sharing facilitates flows of people and investment across spaces governed by widely disparate political and legal regimes and about the effects of those flows on socialities of care. 

The flip side of such an investigation also points to the ways in which Airbnb-style home-sharing allows people to perform care, for example for family members living, studying or exiled at a distance. My recent research (2020) on West Bank Palestinians hosting Airbnbs in Palestine offers one example of how Airbnb facilitates housing futurities and certainties for dispossessed communities, and in particular for Palestinians who are refugees in Palestine or who live in the diaspora. At the level of what we might think of as anonymous, humanitarian forms of care, Airbnb is similarly shaping how Greeks respond to humanitarian crises that result from cross-border movements. As part of its global Open Homes initiative, in 2017 Airbnb partnered with a Greek NGO to establish a process for Airbnb hosts in Greece to offer free shelter to asylum seekers and other migrants in need of temporary emergency housing. How is care being defined at the intersection of austerity, humanitarianism and the so-called sharing economy in the Mediterranean? How is the fact that hospitality for refugees is triply mediated—through a platform, an NGO, and hosts—shaping the nature and temporalities of refugee housing? The fact that thousands of Airbnbs have now been repurposed as housing for medical and other essential personnel as countries grapple with the coronavirus pandemic adds another critical dimension to these questions that I plan to explore.