In the Airbnb tonight: Is the popular service a boon or a bust for Sacramento?
Our writer sleeps over to see whether hotels are out and home-sharing is in
In this complimentary white bath robe, I imagine I look the way Bill Murray looks in Lost in Translation, minus the Asian exoticism and luxury-hotel prestige. Like Murray, I'm sitting on the lip of a bed, posture be damned, feeling alien. Underneath the robe, I'm wearing only red Nautica swim trunks, a detail worth sharing because I am inside a stranger's Land Park home.
The home’s owner, a real estate agent named Steve Walker, sits downstairs at his mahogany desk, quietly waiting for calls to show property while browsing on his Mac. He knows I’m in his bedroom; the robe is a hospitable gesture, for I am one of many guests to whom he’s offered accommodation as an Airbnb host.
During my stay at the real estate agent’s home, I play billiards in his basement, use his cable to nostalgically watch Hook on ABC Family, lounge in his Jacuzzi with my girlfriend and sleep in his king-sized bed. Most of the time, Walker hangs out in an Airstream parked in the driveway.
A week prior to this stay, I paid for the same royalties at a Midtown hideaway, conveniently charging a night in the master’s bedroom to the bank account stored in my cell phone.
This is how you Airbnb.
Founded in 2008 by Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, who were at the time two post-college San Franciscans on the verge of being penniless, Airbnb is basically home-sharing. A mi casa es su casa startup prompted by rising costs of living, and that has lead to reinventing the American guest bedroom as a cash cow.
Just like how ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft are digitized hybrids of hitchhiking and taxis, Airbnb and its contemporaries have revolutionized the bed-and-breakfast and hotel industries. The corporation is valued at $25 billion—even though it owns zilch in real estate.
This online-based home-sharing movement dates back to sites like Couchsurfing.com, beta-launched in 2003, and Craigslist. But Airbnb is millennial-friendly: Creating a listing on the site is free. Pricing, availability and reservation requirements—these are yours to decide. You can book a house on your phone. And, with each “reso” placed, payment is immediate. Airbnb takes a 3 percent cut.
Mayor Kevin Johnson’s vision of Sacramento 3.0 is all about this new hospitality economy. “It’s only a matter of time before the world’s largest hotel will have no hotel rooms: Airbnb,” he said in a speech earlier this year.
But there are critics of this paradigm shift.
Home-sharing outfits are billion-dollar industries operating with scant regulation or taxation. Some landlords have evicted tenants to operate full-time Airbnb listings, this in cities with housing crises. Tourist-destination cities along the coast want to curb home-share rentals to protect residential neighborhoods from being overtaken by vacationers and tourists.
Here in Land Park, Walker says he’s accustomed to the transients frequenting his home. In fact, he actually prefers them over long-term tenants.
“You hear the old saying about what guests have in common with fish?” he asks.
After three days they both begin to stink.Home is where the share is
On Airbnb.com, there’s a video of a wobbly-legged infant taking coltish steps through a foyer. The voice-over ponders: “Is man kind? Are we good?”
The suggestion is that Airbnb is the answer to our deepest existential quandaries. Airbnb invites us to consider the possibility that inviting strangers into our homes just might renew faith in humanity. (Sit at their tables and sleep in their beds to find out!)
A week prior, the images on AirBnb.com included: a day-lit bedroom with a black child playing a handheld gaming system, a white couple gardening on a rooftop, a different white couple on street corner in an Asian country and a couple in the winter of their lives snapping a selfie in front of a traditional Japanese home. There was even an aerial shot of a treehouse’s living room tucked away in a jungle canopy—almost too surreal to believe, especially because the photo suggested this was merely the home’s west wing. Atop each image are the words “Welcome Home.”
However, Airbnb’s new slogan, “Belong Anywhere,” stings of colonialist privilege. The language reflects the company as a global empire, albeit one purportedly of equal opportunity.
Can’t afford Sacramento’s Citizen Hotel and its joie de vivre class and comfort for $200 a night? How about $90 for shared access to a 1901 craftsman bungalow, with a bathroom flat-screen viewable from the home’s glass-encased rainfall shower? Most can afford the latter. And many take advantage of this on Airbnb.
A couple of weeks back, I used Airbnb to stay at a modern Midtown apartment on I and 19 streets for $82. The entrance, flanked by hirsute vines, was a black metal door with ascending parallel gold nodes. It looked like the entry to a tomb, not a mod bachelor pad. I Instagrammed it with the caption, “Portal to my sarcophagus for the night.”
Local music buffs might recognize this pad as the building where members of Death Grips once resided, presumably gathering inspiration for the band’s Epic debut The Money Store from the crestfallen shooting dope along the nearby train tracks. My hunch is that there’s creative energy to be absorbed here. Businessweek already coined a term for the seedy veils attached to some listings: “Airbnb noir.”
The term barely applies to my stay. For most of the day, I remain nude, enjoying the cool cement floors. I adjust the blinds and let in some private morning light that rests against the exposed redwood beams. A pulled-pork sandwich to-go container from Tank House and an empty 32-ounce craft beer bottle remain on the coffee table from the night before. In theory, housekeeping will take care of my mess—I’m paying a cleaning fee, after all—but I tidy up nevertheless.
Ben Ilfeld, founder of The Sacramento Press website, owns this building. He bought the building from sculptor Lane Van Doran in 2007 on the agreement he would not tear it down, and he’s made good on that promise.
The 34-year-old joined Airbnb in 2011, when he provided shelter for Uber developers from San Francisco, who had ventured inland to research the Sacramento market. They planted the seed for the apartment as a full-time Airbnb. With interim tenants helping him test the market, Ilfeld was on his way.
“Uber was willing to pay a lot more than market rent in Sacramento,” Ilfeld explained. “They didn’t know any better—they’re from San Francisco, and they’re a corporation.” The money from that Airbnb stay allowed him to furnish the place.
Fellow Airbnb host Walker, 50, began selling houses the year I was born, in 1984. A self-employed real estate agent for 30 years, he joined Airbnb in 2013. He’s never used it for travel, but after initial success with his listing, he made renovations to his home to better his rental rate. He did this based on a study that suggested travelers are 95 percent more likely to rent when provided a private bathroom.
“Those are pretty telling statistics,” Walker said. The remodeling provided two bedrooms with two baths upstairs.
“It’s paying the mortgage. No one is going to get rich doing this, but it helps pay the bills,” he says.
More importantly for Walker is the quality of travelers. He owns a fourplex on Second Avenue near 21st Street as well, which he said requires monitoring and precautions that amount to a healthy distrust in tenants. As for Airbnb, he’s got a far more optimistic outlook.
“Why would I bring in someone who pays rent erratically and lives here all the time when I could rent that same room for a week, get paid in advance and have the rest of the month to myself?” he said.
“With Airbnb nice people come and they stay a few days and then they leave!”
Walker is a real estate agent, and he understands the housing-shortage issues in San Francisco and the Bay Area. But he also thinks Sacramento is far from having the same problems. And, in his industry, he says there are no talks around the proverbial water cooler about ditching the old ways for full-time Airbnb occupancies in housing complexes.
That said, he is considering turning one of the fourplex apartments into another listing due to the one-bedroom rarely sustaining long-term occupancy.
Ilfeld, however, admits that he’s not Airbnb’s ideal host candidate. “What they would want is you to stay with someone who posts you in an extra room or in their home while they are away,” he said. But he’s not into that.
“My place kind of proves their point,” he argues: Airbnb became a global movement turned revolution because it’s open to the user’s interpretation and comfort zone.
“They offer this service, and the service allows flexibility, so different people use it for different things,” Ilfeld explained. “I probably never would have used Airbnb if it was limited to [being] as folksy as Airbnb says they want it to be.”
But while the origins are informal, even down-home, the startup has swelled to an international corporation, influencing culture and policy in the process.
Chesky and Gebbia’s original vision came about after hosting conference-goers on air mattresses in their Tenderloin neighborhood loft. They provided their guests morning Pop Tarts and orange juice, and even spare change for panhandlers. It was all about favoring that authentic San Francisco experience as counter-currency to the commonplace hotel experience.
As Airbnb took shape, originally called AirBedandBreakfast.com, the company hit a milestone in 2009: 400,000 reservations booked. By 2011, it was 800,000 resos, which is child’s play compared to the 400,000 resos per night in 2015. Revolution status: approved.
Besides being an app downloaded to one’s phone, granting access to real people’s homes anywhere in the world as short-term rental, Airbnb is now a verb, like Uber’d or Instagrammed. “I Airbnb’d it”—an action taken by technocrats desiring authenticity over the resort package, the Motel 6 roulette and the continental breakfast.
Like Lyft, the top Airbnb experiences come down to the host’s attention to detail and accommodations. Lyft is best when you hop out having arrived safely, efficiently and with pockets stuffed with complimentary snacks and a bottled water. A proper Airbnb stay might include guest robes, free coffee and water bottles, a hot tub, a pinball machine or even a home-cooked meal.
But it’s also about the immersive experience, which you don’t get at the Sheraton or Hyatt. “To me, Airbnb is a community,” Ilfeld said. “There are people who treat it like luxury rentals. And you can do that. I’ve been involved so long as a guest, and now as a host, that to me it’s not about top-notch this or 100 percent perfect service. A lot of times, when I’m visiting a place, I want to feel like I’m in the thick of it. Location is more important than everything else.”
Hotels can’t offer this—so it’s no surprise that the home-sharing revolution is under attack.Hack to the hotel
Waging war against Airbnb is becoming a full-time job for Dale Carlson.
His ShareBetter SF organization wants to bring short-term rental regulations to the home-sharing industry in San Francisco. His goal is a ballot initiative that would cap reservations at 75 nights per year. He also wants to fine companies like Airbnb and VRBO for listing units that aren’t registered with local governments. He says home-share outfits need to report the number of nights a unit is rented, and that cities need to be able to crack down on companies that break the rules. The S.F. planning department and public-policy specialists at UC Berkeley agree.
“These are the tools you need to make [regulations] effective,” Carson told SN&R. “[But] those tools don’t exist, and they won’t until our initiative passes.”
Meanwhile, doors are closing on the share economy. VRBO was banned in Santa Monica this year. New York City and San Francisco, notorious for their outlandish rental rates, are at an ideological stalemate as to whether Airbnb stimulates the economy or destabilizes neighborhoods. New York City has roughly 25,000 users. San Francisco has slightly less with 20,000.
As for Sacramento, at roughly 500 listings, we’re small potatoes in the argument. Yet most NIMBYs likely live unwittingly adjacent to hosts.
“I live two doors down from Vic’s Ice Cream,” Walker said. “There’s hundreds of people going to Vic’s every day. Nobody is going to notice one or two extra cars here.”
But Carlson says he has hard data pointing to Airbnb’s desecration of communities. For instance, he argues that there’s a correlation between the concentration of listings on the top-three home-sharing sites and eviction rates in those neighborhoods.
Some San Franciscans have turned hosting into a profession, he points out. Carlson tells the story of one Airbnb host who openly flaunted making $11,000 on his $3,000 rent-controlled apartment in a month. This same host offers a $300 online course on how to get rich with Airbnb.
“Airbnb continues to hide behind home-sharing,” Carlson said. “They say, ’We’re just trying to help middle-class people rent an extra room in their homes, make a few extra bucks to pay their mortgage, pay their property taxes. We’re just helping people make ends meet.’ Well, that’s their claim, and certainly there are people using it that way. But, most of the people on Airbnb are not. They are not making ends meet. They’re making a killing.”
In Sacramento, Ilfeld was approached by Airbnb to comment and possibly lobby on behalf of the service, which he declined. Had he joined the fight, he might have been among the reported millennial throng present for a hearing earlier this year for Senate Bill 593.
This proposed law would require Airbnb to pay a TOT, or transient occupancy tax, known colloquially as the “bed tax.” In addition—and this where Airbnb supremely objects—the corporation would be required to fork over big data, specifically the number of guests and hosts and lengths of stay, to cities and counties.
Home-share companies call this a breach of privacy. But the bill’s author, Senator Mike McGuire of the coastal town Healdsburg, iterated that the bill does not require companies to divulge names and information, only figures.
Still, Airbnb public-policy regional head David Owen called the bill a “blunt instrument intended to stunt the growth of an incredibly valuable industry.”
S.B. 593 passed out of committee with an 8-0 vote in the Senate, but did not make the legislative deadline. McGuire intends to resume pursuit in January 2016.
At the city level, local Councilman Jay Schenirer considers Sacramento’s small sample size an advantage in assessing future policy when it comes to home-sharing.
Having seen food trucks and ride-hailing apps elbow their way into Sacramento and suffer their share of policy limbo, Schenirer has been a voice of reason when it comes to Airbnb, suggesting that we not kill the new industry on sight. Coincidentally, when I spoke with the council member, he was on vacation in the San Juan Islands outside of Seattle—staying at a VRBO-listed home.
“The thing for Sacramento right now is that the number of Airbnbs is so small that it gives us an opportunity to get it right without having a significant impact on the hotel industry or the neighborhoods,” he explained. “There’s an opportunity for the city to be thoughtful about it, to find that balance, so that this new industry can prosper and help Sacramento while also protecting the neighborhoods.”
Having recently been to Santa Monica, where VRBO was outlawed, Schenirer expects the city of Sacramento to be more conscientious in its handling of the home-sharing industry.
It also helps that Sacramento is not yet on the front lines of the short-term-rental battles like those fought in New York City and San Francisco. The few hundred hosts dotting Midtown and Curtis Park, stretching north to Natomas and east to Granite Bay, are not the scapegoats of tomorrow’s rental crisis. At least, not yet.
Yet Carlson has advice for the capital: “Get in front of it before it gets too big to control.”
Around the world, Airbnb offers reservation opportunities in unforgettable and unique accommodations in breathtaking destinations. But as a vacationer in Sacramento, the simple pleasures mattered most.
Staying around the corner from Vic’s Ice Cream. Tightrope-walking on the train tracks in Midtown with a bag full of barbecue and dirty Tater Tots. A framed aerial portrait of downtown Sacramento taken in 1994 in one room, tokens of history from 1901 and 2012 in another.
While standing robed and barefoot in Walker’s basement, he shares that, weeks prior, he threw a raging party down here. The band set up in the musty corner, and his backyard was so full of people that it would make anyone claustrophobic. The point is that Walker is going to invite people into his home regardless.
For Ilfeld, the money earned on his Airbnb apartment means he never has to raise the rent on the nonprofit Bike Kitchen. So far, it seems that most of the hosts in our city aren’t opportunistic.
And, in Sacramento, home-sharing isn’t just millennial flophouses inviting belligerent tourists to piss on your lawn while you sleep. At least, not yet. Hosts are named Bill and Cathy, with a Land Park cottage; DeAnn, with a two-bedroom guest suite; and Molly, the papier-mâché artist offering her entire McKinley Park home. These local listings offer quaint guest rooms in Midtown Victorians, stucco cookie-cutter condos in Natomas and the occasional nouveau loft. And, for the daring, a night on the river in the underbelly of a boat.