September 7, 2013 in Business

Vacationers’ rent a boon, but Airbnb drawing critics

Walter Hamilton Los Angeles Times
 

Hope Arnold peers out of her bedroom where she set up a sitting area next to the room for guests to enjoy in her home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Full-size photo)

Connecting

Websites such as Lyft, RelayRides and TaskRabbit enable people to cobble together a living by renting their cars, their couches, or their own time and expertise.

Despite working 18-hour days, including part time as a waitress at a strip club, Hope Arnold was on the verge of losing her Los Angeles home.

Then she discovered Airbnb, a website that links vacationers seeking an alternative to hotels and homeowners with rooms to rent.

Billing her place as an “artsy and rustic 1927 treehouse,” she started renting out her master bedroom, while she slept in the den. It paid off. Arnold has made $39,000 on Airbnb in the past 12 months, and the site now accounts for as much as 70 percent of her monthly income.

“It has been a financial savior for me,” said Arnold, 39.

Originally conceived as a way to make a few extra bucks, Airbnb has emerged as an unexpected lifeline for struggling homeowners – but one they are now trying to preserve in the face of a growing backlash.

Echoing concerns in other cities, officials in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, where Arnold lives, complain that Airbnb has taken over their community. The neighborhood council is contemplating a crackdown to reduce noise, traffic and parking problems.

Airbnb proponents say many homeowners rely on the site to help them cover living expenses in a sluggish economy that’s still rutted with high unemployment.

Growth has been driven by the lingering effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, as people who can’t land full-time work stitch together part-time gigs. Advocates liken Airbnb to homeowners who took in boarders during the Great Depression.

“These people depend on this additional income,” said Lisa Gansky, who wrote a book on what’s known as the sharing economy. “It’s supplementing essentials, allowing them to pay medical bills or allowing them to stay in their homes.”

Proponents say it’s part of a broader shift in the economy being propelled by an emerging peer-to-peer marketplace.

Websites such as Lyft, RelayRides and TaskRabbit enable people to cobble together a living by renting their cars, their couches, or their own time and expertise.

“This is the first stage of something more profound, which is the ability of people to structure their lives around doing multiple sharing-economy activities as a choice in lieu of a 9-to-5, five-day-a-week job,” said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University.

“This is technology-driven progress,” he said. “This is what it’s all about.”

But opposition is rising from neighbors, business rivals and city officials.

Web-based transportation services such as Uber, Lyft and SideCar have drawn howls of protest from taxicab companies decrying what they say is unregulated competition. The sites pair riders with car owners willing to ferry them around in their own vehicles for fees or “donations” lower than those charged by cabs.

Likewise, plumbers and other tradesmen bristle at what they contend are unlicensed rivals undercutting them on TaskRabbit, a help-for-hire site listing people who will happily walk a dog or fix a leaky faucet.

Airbnb is among the most prominent sites to encounter opposition.

Critics in Silver Lake say some Airbnb hosts are running virtual hotels, packing homes with throngs of visitors whose sheer presence alters the community feel.

The potential for bigger profits has prompted some landlords to transform long-term apartments into short-term Airbnb units.

That pushes up rents of remaining apartments and squeezes out young or low-income people, said Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of Shareable.net.

“We’re in favor of people occasionally renting out their homes and bringing in extra income and financial security, but not doing it to the extent where you start to hurt the local housing stock,” Gorenflo said.


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