Back Fence

To BnB or Not to BnB

So you want to open a hotel in your house? Think. Hard.

By Kathryn Robinson February 2, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Seattle Met

Seattle airbnb j3gvov

Illustration: Adam Hancher

I don’t know what your basement looks like, but my friend T’s looks like Dwell magazine. Acres of bed, all silky 350 thread count beneath a cloud of white duvet. Out the window, beyond the stone patio and path to the hot tub, a wide sweep of Lake Washington and the Cascades. Inside: a kitchenette stocked with yogurt and fresh fruit, a bath with thick towels and shea butter soap. 

Airbnb, the website that lets hosts market their room or dwelling online, was invented for setups like the one at the feet of T’s bright South End contemporary. But she’s far from the only one with Airbnb fever. Right now it seems just about every third homeowner I know is fluffing a spare room and hanging an Airbnb shingle. T makes roughly $2,000 on hers per month, and after starting up last June could have rented her place every single night through September. No fool, she jacked her price and expects her monthly net for the coming season to approach $4,000.

For a room her family was not using anyway.

Stories like this explain why Airbnb is the new gold rush. It certainly explains why I raced home from her house, flung open the door to my daylight basement, and saw…well, okay, I saw throwback furniture (remember armoires?) and a prison-quality futon, along with a view of side-yard weeds and, occasionally, my neighbor’s ankles. All subtly scented with carpet moisture. Pretty sure $4,000 would be a reach.

But do I even want to be an Airbnb host? This is by no means an easy question. According to the Department of Planning and Development any legal residence in the city of Seattle is zoned for rentals, but hosts need a business license, and they need to pay taxes (which Airbnb recently started withholding itself). In our case we’d need to haul stuff out of the basement, bring in a microwave and hot plate, add a boltable security door at the stairs. Plus make a few aesthetic upgrades to a room that now—thanks to our mask collection—a certain kind of person could describe as, you know, terrifying. 

That’s a word no host yearns to see in her Airbnb reviews.

According to T it’s all about the reviews. She carefully provides her guests with detailed attention (quick-response scheduling, a numbing repetition of cleaning chores) to ensure the glowing appraisals that lead to full bookings, which she figures takes roughly eight to 12 hours a week. I wonder: Did my Airbnb host in Port Townsend with the sloping mattress spend that much time? What about our Airbnb host in Boston, where hair balls roamed like house pets? Sure, these were issues I could’ve addressed with our hosts, or in my reviews. But what if the hosts retaliated? Fans of Airbnb like that the system incents both guest and host to best behavior, as each reviews the other—all true until there’s a legitimate complaint to be made. If I fully disclose the hair balls on Airbnb’s site, every prospective host in my Airbnb future can see it and peg me, their prospective guest, as a potential complainer. (I’m a restaurant critic; I could put “Potential Complainer” on my tax return.) Negative reviews not only cut into hosts’ livelihood, they can sting. And no wonder. This is their home you’re dissing.

It’s this commercializing of the very, very personal that makes Airbnb so deeply strange at its heart. To my mind it’s the strangeness of the whole emerging “gig economy”—Uber, TaskRabbit, all of it—where individuals willingly blur lines between private life and public marketplace to, essentially, commodify their most personal domains. 

Much has been made of the lurid risks: the guest who wreaks havoc, the host who won’t take responsibility, the proverbial sociopathic ax murderer (who must stalk the imagination of all Airbnb hosts the moment they hand a stranger their house keys). Much has also been made of Airbnb’s potential damage to communities, with its attendant problems like parking and noise—not to mention, in big cities, Airbnb hosts who make whole properties into ad hoc hotels. This practice increasingly prices ordinary homeowners and tenants—like families—out of municipalities altogether, threatening to homogenize the distinctive texture of cities. We appear to have fewer of these sorts of Airbnbs, but Seattle officials have made it clear: They’re watching.

Yes, these dangers are real. But when I consider whether to launch an Airbnb, it’s the less discussed danger of diminishing personal domain that hits, literally, closest to home. Airbnb’s bone-deep appeal is its folksiness, seeming to take us back to a simpler time when neighbors helped neighbors with a bed for the night or a car for the day. Now that we’ve commercialized those services, the practitioners aren’t neighbors—they’re a new class of independent service providers whose lack of labor protections have recently been spotlit by Seattle Uber drivers’ first-in-the-nation move to unionize. When I hear their grievances, and their fears, I can’t help but see them and all their gigging counterparts as a new class of serfs, selling off the privacy of their homes and lives and schedules in a less-than-regulated economy that feels almost feudal.

Never mind ax murderers. That makes me feel vulnerable.

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