(For $220 a night)
By Jack Queen; illustrations by Rachel Fischman
It’s December and I am returning home from a semester abroad. After dropping my bags and greeting an ecstatic dog, I go to my childhood room to check up on my parents’ nascent business; in my sister andmy absence, they are separating our rooms from the rest of the house and converting them into short-term rental units.
It’s a jarring experience, but one I was prepared for. A thin layer of dust covers the floor and scattered power tools. The walls, once adorned with baseball posters and tokens of passing enthusiasm for aviation and space travel, are now empty and drab. On one section of drywall spared from the gutting are paintings of Bart Simpson and Superman I made as a child. Soon, they will be gone, too. Glow-in-the-dark stars still stick to the ceiling. In one corner, a mobile of colorful fish dangles, still untouched after nearly two decades.
It’s a manifestation of my march to adulthood, one that I supported wholeheartedly. My parents were thinking of downsizing, but the infusion of rent money allows them to stay here in downtown Austin. They fill the rooms using Airbnb, a website that facilitates rentals in people’s homes. Founded in 2008 by a trio of starry-eyed techies, its meteoric ascendance has been accompanied by other entrants like HomeAway (a company that is, incidentally, headquartered several blocks away).
This is the “sharing economy,” an oft-vaunted innovation that has allowed people to capitalize on their free time and extra space. The idea quickly spread and began facilitating transactions between strangers that—like renting out your extra rooms, letting strangers into your car with the impromptu cab service Uber, or giving them the keys to it with the rental service RelayRides—would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago. Now you can drop off your dog with a pet-sitter through DogVacay, find a date on Tinder, hitch a ride in an Uber and sit down for a home-cooked meal in someone’s kitchen with Feastly. To pay for it all, you can rent out your power tools with Zilok. Chances are, this whole chain of transactions would be unregulated and untaxed, as many state and local governments have been slow to respond to the sharing revolution.
In places where new laws haven’t been passed, Airbnb hosts, Uber drivers and the like enjoy a competitive advantage over traditional service providers: They don’t have to navigate complex regulations or pay licensing fees and taxes. But even if these issues are addressed, some still fear the unintended ripple effect the transactions could have on conventional jobs, namely in hospitality and taxi driving. These exchanges could collectively put the squeeze on a lot of careers, as evidenced by the taxi industry’s vociferous opposition to Uber. Anyone who’s ridden in an Uber can tell you that ride sharing services offer a vastly superior experience to taxis on nearly all fronts: the ease of arranging a ride, the cleaner cars and friendlier drivers and the ability to pay via credit card through the app itself. In this narrative, however, there is little room for the taxi drivers who may well be put out of work by Uber. The cold logic of capitalism—the “creative destruction” that forces out uncompetitive business so better ones can flower—probably won’t provide them much comfort. Companies like Airbnb allow people to put some extra money in their pockets and in my parents’ case, this has been a blessing. As public school teachers, renting out these rooms can more than double their combined annual income. But the explosion of short-term rentals will no doubt take a toll on the rank and file of the hotel industry, as many hotels lack the time or resources to capitalize on it.
The concept of Airbnb has been met with criticism. In the eyes of some commentators, it could end up forcing people to pawn off chunks of their private lives in order to stay afloat. There are also safety concerns. In a particularly high profile incident in 2011, a San Francisco Airbnb host returned home to find her place trashed and her jewelry and passport stolen. This compelled the company to set up various safety nets, including a one million dollar host guarantee for every transaction. This can’t, however, prevent all headaches and abuses. There have been reports of Airbnb rentals being used for orgies, prostitution and money laundering schemes. A renter in Berlin claims to have received a menacing knock on the door late at night from the real owner of the unit, which had apparently been rented out without his knowledge.
Next stop: my dad’s study, which will serve as my surrogate bedroom while I’m here for break. Boxes filled with the treasures of youth stack up to form a nest around a small twin bed. I plop down in the midst of the organized chaos as my eyes scan over the vestiges of a bygone chapter in my life. I trace the spines of books stuffed into a shelf for a whirlwind tour of my literary adventures: a duct-taped copy of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” a battered “Grapes of Wrath” and dozens of other worn volumes worth revisiting.
My mother enters, apologizing again for remodeling my room. I tell her for the fifth time that I don’t mind . In fact, I support the project. A new cat emerges from behind a box, sniffing curiously at these tokens of a happy childhood.
“Don’t close the door on her when you leave, she’ll pee on your stuff.”
My mother has had some reservations about this process that she articulated in an op-ed in the Austin newspaper. She is concerned that the proliferation of short-term rentals risks changing the unique character of our neighborhood from the college students and artists who rent long-term from their older professional landlords to a stream of transient tourists. The absence of long-term residents who have a vested interest in the vitality of a neighborhood could pose problems for a community. She also expressed regret over losing a durable relationship with the tenant who occupied our garage apartment, now converted to short-term rental space.
A few days later, she received a letter from a local resident. As part of a group of short-term rental (STR) operators, he put in many late nights working with city officials to develop the regulations currently in place in Austin. He respectfully took issue with some of her concerns, namely the threat STR’s pose to the vitality of neighborhoods by pointing out the important distinction between owner-occupied and non-resident, or “full time,” rental units. The latter, which house no permanent residents, are capped at three percent per census area in order to ensure the community doesn’t give way to commerce. He also noted that all licensed operators must pay hotel occupancy taxes, which, through the city’s tourism department, help support local musicians and artists.
The city of Austin limits the number of nights people can rent out their homes to 90 persons per year, presumably enforced through tax audits and the honor system (after all, the sharing economy is also the “trusting economy”). But not every city has adopted these types of clear-headed regulations, and some that have still lack the will to adequately enforce them. San Francisco, in response to sharp criticism regarding widespread noncompliance with its STR laws, recently passed legislation beefing up enforcement of the rules themselves.
I come home from a night out with my friends to hear sounds of revelry from the backyard. These must be the Australian college students staying in the garage apartment (their reputation precedes them).
They’re having one of their fires, drinking heavily, their thick accents ringing out into the night. Apparently they’ve charmed all the neighbors, but I wonder if the block will grow weary of rowdy travellers. I introduce myself, informing them that I dug the fire pit back in high school. After enthusiastic introductions they send a bottle of wine my way.
We hit it off well and they regale me with stories of their cross-country adventure. They gush about my parents, who have, by their accounts, been doting hosts. It’s true that we’ve lost lasting bonds with long-term tenants, but we’ve also created opportunities for many diverse interactions like this one. If we picked up some sprightly Aussies this quickly, I can only imagine the other characters who will come passing through.
My neighbor’s daughter who is about to start her first year of college stops by to say her goodbyes—this is her last night before pressing on to California. I haven’t seen Annabelle in years and I can’t believe how much she’s grown. We used to be playmates, but the narrow age gap became quite pronounced in the teenage years and we drifted apart. I’m not sure when I would have seen her again had it not been for these boisterous Aussies. In this sense, the presence of renters could actually help build communities—although few are likely to be this charismatic. But a high-profile incident—an orgy or a pop-up brothel, for instance, would have quite the opposite effect.
I leave them to their fire and seemingly endless supply of wine. As I walk through the kitchen, there’s a thunderous sound from outside. I look out the window to see them sending mortars and fountain fireworks into the night sky.
The next day they’ve moved on, having made a real mess of the apartment. My dad enters to find a sea of beer cans and, inexplicably, M&M’s scattered throughout. I join him in inspecting the damage. Nothing serious, only the typical detritus of drunk college boys. He chuckles while rummaging through the mess. My dad doesn’t really care—a fee for a maid service is included in the price.
“This is probably nothing compared to what you and your buddies do to those ski condos.”