Hurricane Sandy and the Airbnb revolution

Virginia Heffernan

By Virginia Heffernan

Someone should do an exposé of Airbnb, the shadowy “vacation rental service” that’s giving away free rooms to refugees of superstorm Sandy. Point out it’s illegal for people to convert their studies into hotel rooms. Lament the blow that Airbnb might yet deal to the hospitality industry. Opine that sleeping on a stranger’s couch is plain creepy.

Someone should write that piece. Just not me.

Because even though I live in cold-hearted New York City, I’m a sucker for the groovy Airbnb fantasy—even though I learned the hard way (actually using Airbnb) that that fantasy doesn’t work for me.

On Airbnb, you list any sleepable place to happen to have jurisdiction over—anything from a spare bed in a room to a spare room in a house to a spare seaside palace on 40 acres. You also post dates it’s free. The lovely, searchable site then suggests—based on your area—what you might charge per night for what you’re offering.

In my imagination, Airbnb is home to a steampunk billionaire couch-surfer lifestyle that I’m undercapitalized for, and way too square. People who use Airbnb—sleep on other people’s sofabeds and rent out their own—get to act noble and lo-fi, talking heroically about sharing-economy startups, while someone like Sequoia Capital keeps them in kale chips, iPad minis and medical marijuana. Let me spell it out: I’m jealous!

And now those Portlandia types even merit #OccupySandy hoodies. Because Airbnb—as if the company weren’t righteous enough with its emphasis on communitarianism and “reducing the ecological footprint of travel”—is hosting those East Coasters affected by superstorm Sandy for free. As the company’s blog puts it, "There are thousands more people in need of shelter. And there are still thousands of people with extra space. It's time to come together.”

Isn’t that beautiful? What’s more beautiful still is how many trusting, openhearted Airbnb types are actually taking part in this DIY love-in. They breezily vet possible tenants on Facebook—making sure they went to Reed or Oberlin or have friends who did—and throw open their doors to whatever Justin or Daisy ambles in. Quinoa’s already on the table; the cat’s name is Ada Lovelace. Wi-Fi password? Namaste.

Doesn’t that Age-of-Aquarius NorCal attitude make you selfish New Yorkers ashamed that, after all these blizzards, storms, floods and fires, you feel like jumping the gas line, hoarding DD batteries and bolting the door against looters?

But wait—isn’t it only natural to batten down in a storm? And the truth is, and I’m not just being uptight: Airbnb is kind of illegal. It has essentially opened tens of thousands of unlicensed hotels around the world, many in neighborhoods that are meant to be residential. It has also kicked off a trend of “hoteling”: renting or commandeering uninhabited industrial spaces in desirable cities and cutting them up into bedrooms, sometimes with mere partitions. Each one of these beds can be booked most nights of the year on Airbnb. I’m told—hearsay, but solid hearsay—that some Brooklynites make good money this way

Airbnb, for its part, says these year-round Airbnb properties are anomalous. Rather, the people who use Airbnb, says the company, are closer to stranger-houseguests who pay in cash rather than jars of jam and scented candles. Given Facebook and certain global village-reputation-checking methods (people post reviews on Airbnb), a would-be host may even feel he knows his Airbnb guest as well as he’d know, say, a friend of a friend.

That was the case when, last Christmas, I used the service to find tenants (the parents of a neighbor, it turns out) for my empty apartment—and recouped the costs of my flight and all holiday presents!

But, I was nervous while I was on holiday. Were the tenants happy? Did they like my taste in upholstery? Had I cleaned the place enough, hidden my weird self-help books carefully enough? Wait, no, were they keeping it clean? Had they broken the dishwasher? Did the doorman suspect me of hoteling?

I came home to a sparklingly clean apartment, a lovely thank-you note and a fat check. Huge relief. But my racing thoughts had kept me from fully enjoying my vacation.

And the lesson of that magical Christmas season turned out to be one I seem to need to learn and relearn: I am not a low-key, lo-fi, peer-to-peer San Francisco person. No matter how hard I try. This year I plan to tape my windows to protect them from the winds, lock my place up tight as a drum and enjoy my vacation far from this weather-beaten city.