Airbnb CEO says this is ‘loneliest time in human history’ and we need to ‘rebuild physical community’

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Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky sees a world of loneliness out there—and he says he knows how to bring people together. 

“We’re probably living in the loneliest time in human history,” Chesky said during an interview on Thursday at the Bloomberg Technology Summit in San Francisco. In cities around the world, he said, “we need to rebuild physical community.”

He noted how people no longer gather as much as they used to, for instance by working remotely instead of in the office, by shopping on Amazon instead of in a mall, and by watching movies on Netflix instead of in theaters. Places like churches and bowling alleys are no longer what they were in terms of gathering, but we “still need community,” he said. “We need to be physically together.”

Part of the solution involves breaking old habits, Chesky suggested. “We have a long history in cities of dividing up zoning: This is a commercial district, this is a retail district, this is a residential district.” He said, “There could be a potentially massive opportunity to rezone the commercial spaces to be residential or mixed use.”

Commercial real estate is struggling in the U.S., with the amount of troubled assets climbing to nearly $64 billion in the first quarter, according to a recent report from MSCI Real Assets. Nearly $155 billion of commercial property assets are potentially troubled, the report stated, with offices—hit by remote work and large layoffs in tech in particular—accounting for nearly $43 billion of potential distress, the most of any sector.

The average occupancy of U.S. offices is just under 50%, according to data from security provider Kastle. 

Shark Tank star and real estate veteran Barbara Corcoran noted the low confidence in commercial real estate on Fox Business earlier this month, commenting, “No one really believes it’s going to turn the corner. People are staying home.”

The research firm Capital Economics said in a report released Thursday that the “35% plunge in office values we’re forecasting by end-2025 is unlikely to be recovered even by 2040,” likening the demand reduction to the experience of malls over the past six years as consumers leaned into online shopping.

But “out of crisis is opportunity,” Chesky said, “and when somebody moves out, somebody can move in.”

The first step to fixing the problem is to turn more commercial real estate into residential real estate, he said. High-rise towers, he argued, “are better for living than working,” noting that many people today want big window views and open floor plans. “If we made rezoning a little bit easier and really created incentives for people, that could be really interesting,” he added.

Second, cities should use rezoning to allow for more multiuse real estate. “I think a very vibrant community is a multi-zone community, so it’s not quiet during the day or quiet at night—this is where people live and this is where people work,” he said.

Third, cities should encourage more community spaces, he said, giving the example of co-working spaces that allow remote workers to feel some connection.

Chesky isn’t the only tech luminary to comment on the increasing levels of loneliness and the opportunities to reconnect people. Last year, well-known venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said that remote work has “detonated” the way we connect in American society, with people neither gathering in offices nor feeling much connection in apartments with other residents, leading to more feelings of “alienation and loneliness.” His firm, Andreessen Horowitz, has invested in Flow, a startup that aims to give renters a better sense of ownership and community.

But Chesky, for one, isn’t mandating a return to the office at his own company, even as many other CEOs increasingly insist upon it. A year ago, Airbnb announced a Live and Work Anywhere policy for employees, which lets them not only choose whether to work at home or in the office, but also allows them to work up to 90 days in other countries.

As Airbnb CFO Dave Stephenson—also head of employee experience—recently told Fortune, “We are not remote-first. We think working in person is incredibly important…We just think that you should be intentional about when you gather for work.” 

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