STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Not so long ago if you wanted to rent a room for the weekend, your choices were places ranging from Four Seasons to Motel 6. And renting a car meant dealerships like Hertz or Avis. Of course you can still use those companies, but you might also just deal with a person like yourself. Thousands of Americans have started renting out their personal assets online to earn extra cash. They rent their apartments while they're away for the weekend, lend their cars for cash, even sell their spare time. It's called the peer-to-peer economy, or the sharing economy. NPR's Steve Henn explains all this is possible in part because of technology, but also because many Americans are coming to terms with scarcity in their lives.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Sharing is not new. After all, eBay has been around for a while and the Craigslist auction of unwanted junk is more or less a staple of modern life. Still, during the financial crisis something began to change.
NATHAN BLECHARCZYK: Absolutely. When the crisis hit, there were people who were in desperate need of alternative solutions.
HENN: Nathan Blecharczyk is one of the co-founders of Airbnb.
BLECHARCZYK: We were one of those solutions.
HENN: For the uninitiated, Airbnb allows anyone with a house or an apartment to compete head-to-head against the likes of Hilton in the tourist trade. The website allows you to rent your place out online when you're out of town. You can even rent out a spare room. In 2009, as the economy collapsed and this company was getting off the ground, that became a godsend for some.
MICHAEL BEARD: The Airbnb income pays our mortgage for us.
HENN: Michael Beard and his wife started renting out rooms in their house near Washington during President Obama's first inauguration.
BEARD: A little bit later, I wound up losing my job as an arts administrator for a very high profile performing arts school.
HENN: They have a big old house and a blended family. Together they've raised 10 kids. Initially opening up their home this way was a decision driven by necessity.
BEARD: There's a lot of barriers that people have to break through to do something like this.
HENN: Renting out a home, your home, for the weekend on the Internet to complete strangers is kind of a radical idea. Lisa Gansky is a serial entrepreneur, investor and the author of "Mesh," a book about the sharing economy. She says the financial crisis helped make this kind of cultural shift possible. She calls it our culture's blue-dye moment.
LISA GANSKY: The idea where you inject blue dye into a system and you can suddenly see things in new ways that weren't visible before.
HENN: She says the stress of the Great Recession allowed millions of Americans to see the waste and the excess in their own lives more clearly. Ganksy says mobile technology made sharing all sorts of things much simpler.
GANSKY: In the same way that a taxi illuminates when they are on and off duty, we have this ability to suddenly illuminate what is waste, what is sitting around unused, and that pent up waste is - with new eyes becomes value.
HENN: And businesses that link people together this way are proliferating. Lending Club lets consumers lend directly to each other. It will facilitate $2 billion in consumer loans this year, and last weekend a handful of chefs in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. invited strangers into their own homes for dinner. Noah Karesh helped make this possible by founding...
NOAH KARESH: Feastly, so this marketplace that allows any chef to offer and serve a meal to any hungry eater.
HENN: He got this idea on a trip to Guatemala after spending a long fruitless afternoon searching for authentic local food.
KARESH: And so as we were walking to back where we were staying, like, deflated and hungry, we came across this young avocado seller named Irwin and we asked him, hey, do you know where we can find some Guatemalan food? Just like a last-ditch effort. And he paused for a second and then he looked up at us, massive smile on his face, and was like, yeah, my mom's house.
And, you know, we were really excited about that and so we followed him back to his house, he swings open the door, and there is his mom, Rosa, making the most amazing Guatemalan food. And as we were there interacting with them, you know, the biggest thought that came through my head was, you know, why was this so hard?
Why was it so hard for to find this authentic food and why was it so hard for Rosa to be able to showcase what she loved to do and maybe make some extra income doing it?
HENN: Building a solution to this problem became Feastly. But as peer-to-peer businesses roll into sector after sector of the old school economy, regulators and entrenched industries are rebelling. Sharing advocates like Lisa Gansky argue that as the Earth's population heads towards nine billion, these kinds of businesses offer a solution. She says governments will need to adapt to peer-based businesses and give them room to work.
They are more efficient, she argues. They eliminate waste and provide opportunities for millions of us to make a little extra money. But best of all, says Gansky, these businesses help connect us to each other. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.