By MARY-MARGARET WHEELER-WEBER and GREG WEBER
We have been Airbnb hosts in Portland for about a year and a half. We have loved it and taken great pride in being Superhosts (search for "Sweet Suite with Kitchenette" in Portland).
Recently, however, our association with Airbnb has become an embarrassment. We urge Airbnb and the City of Portland to enforce the existing rules regarding Airbnb rentals.
We think of ourselves as being ideal Airbnb hosts and used to love telling our friends about our experiences. We began renting out our basement bedroom suite in the Spring of 2015 when one of us was laid off. The income helped us make it through a difficult time, including helping pay the mortgage on our new house. We didn't want a full-time roommate because the sound barrier between the upstairs living room and the downstairs bedroom is very poor. For short periods of time, we avoid using the living room, but for longer periods it's harder to cohabitate comfortably.
We are temperamentally and professionally rule followers. When conversations about Airbnb first started in Portland, we weren't sure we could do it because of the ambiguities, but then Airbnb and the City of Portland came to agreement on terms and rules that were clear and, in our minds, very reasonable. We followed the City's process and found it quick and painless to become licensed (although we had one small hiccup—more on that below).
Airbnb was a great fit for us. We have always loved hosting parties and guests. We enjoy anticipating people's needs and making them as comfortable as possible. We also had experience as landlords of a duplex we'd lived in and managed for 12 years before moving to our new house. The City of Portland's Landlord Training class was very helpful and we took professional pride in applying what we learned about safety, fair housing, security, and privacy to the world of hospitality.
We also loved the culture of Airbnb: the focus on hospitality and service, the ease of using the system, the welcome and support we experienced from the company as hosts. And most of all, we loved the guests: people from all over (but mostly Canada in our case) who were friendly and returned our hospitality with kindness and gratitude. The money was also pretty great to have, make no mistake.
The attacks on Airbnb at first were easy for us to ignore or dismiss. Even as the rental market and housing crisis worsened, we believed from personal experience and the data that these were not caused by Airbnb, and we dismissed the attacks as hyperbole and a distraction from larger forces at work.
We knew that we weren't personally removing rental stock from Portland, and felt that the rules protected against that. Our guests were often young people who didn't seem to be people of great means. The ability to easily donate to Central City Concern by assigning a percentage of our earnings also made us feel good. (At the beginning of this year, that option was removed. We were told it would be replaced with something else, but we haven't heard what it is.)
When the #airbnbnwhileblack hashtag came out, we were embarrassed and disappointed but, on reflection, not surprised. We had seen conversations in Airbnb forums that recommended practices that would easily lead people to discriminate. We knew that it's easy for individuals to fall into discriminatory practices if they "follow their gut"—something many hosts talk about doing.
But where was the response from Airbnb? The education and guidance? This was a serious problem and we didn't hear anything from Airbnb as hosts that seemed to take it seriously or offer any number of possible solutions.
In the last week Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky finally sent a message to us as hosts outlining a response to the issue of discrimination. It remains to be seen whether this is too little, too late. We appreciate that it's better to do some things thoughtfully, but the delay on this issue really hurt.
Recently, it has come out that an Airbnb employee has been flouting Portland's regulations and renting out multiple units. We have also learned that Portland has the second highest rate of units listed that are out of alignment with the rules and guidelines.
Not only does this support the increasingly popular view that Airbnb is damaging our housing market, it also tells us that Airbnb really doesn't care about hosts like us. We thought we embodied the spirit and soul of Airbnb: welcoming people into our home, not properties we'd purchased to rent out.
Why on earth doesn't Airbnb enforce the existing rules in Portland? The argument that Airbnb relies on revenue from the bulk hosts like Rebecca Rosenfelt is starting to sound pretty convincing, and the fact that she is an Airbnb employee seems to illustrate just how little the company cares, and is particularly infuriating.
Furthermore, those bulk hosts hurt our bottom line, even if we didn't care about the bigger issues. How are small time hosts like us supposed to compete with a fleet of capital-rich Realtors and investors?
We also think the City should play a more active role in enforcement although honestly, we don't understand why the City should have to do Airbnb's work for them. If other people can find these illegal listings, why can't Airbnb?
Why not require the license number to be posted as opposed to (as happened to us at one point)—actually REMOVING the license number?
The one hiccup we had in the City's process was not realizing that we needed to register as a City of Portland Business as well as an Airbnb unit (we don't pay business taxes so we weren't in arrears, but it is a requirement). When we were contacted by City staff to fix this, the process was pretty easy but we did need that bit of a nudge. That was almost a year after we'd first registered and we do think the City could do better on this.
We don't know what the City needs to improve its enforcement process, but we want to clearly communicate that as Portland voters and Airbnb hosts, strong enforcement helps hosts like us and we are fully in support of it. If it takes City of Portland action to get Airbnb to enforce the existing regulations, then that should be done.
For now, both of us are working, and our license is up for renewal in October. We will fulfill the commitments we have made to our visitors coming in but have blocked dates beyond September. We are discussing ways to soundproof our living room floor to make long-term house-mates more feasible.
But we are heartbroken about all this, and would love to be proud members of the Airbnb community again. We would welcome discussions with Airbnb and the City addressing these matters. Even more so, we would celebrate direct and immediate action.