Selling our shares

Despite its perks, Airbnb is making it tougher to live in Portland
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  July 24, 2014

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In any given season, every Portland citizen keeps a small mental list of friends who are looking for apartments. In years past, a Facebook post might yield instant results of people offering up leads before you’re forced to wade through Craigslist.

Those days may be over. The city’s rising status in tourist and foodie circles has contributed to a swell in tourism and a recent surge in hotel development, as the city hopes to expand its tourist season beyond the summer months.

Yet beyond the hotels, it’s the arrival of Airbnb, the digital marketplace where tenants can rent their living spaces directly to travelers, which presents Portland with a problem.

The startup community drools over its capacity to “disrupt” the practices of the travel industry; the transient like to cut their losses while they’re away; more adventurous travelers want an alternative to stuffy corporate hotels; and just about everyone can get down with the reciprocal, people-first ethos the service circulates.

But before we herald Airbnb as the harbinger of Portland’s “sharing economy” revolution, some troubling side effects are beginning to show. Airbnb is raising rents, fracturing neighborhoods, accelerating gentrification, and diminishing Portland’s stock of affordable, available, permanent homes.

SURFING IN EARNEST

A forerunner among the many sharing economy models to have gained prominence since the recession, Airbnb was founded in San Francisco by Brian Chesky in 2008, expanding on the far-more-underground and less monetarily-based web forum Couchsurfing.org. And in the last couple years, it’s broken into the mainstream. Hotels are getting business, too, but savvier Portlanders have caught on.

The structure of Airbnb makes it difficult to determine how many apartments are being rented at any given time, since the website (and corresponding app) makes units invisible once an agreement has been reached between traveler and host. Searches for random summer weekends on the peninsula yield dozens of results, but there’s no telling how many reservations have already been made.

It’s clear that those in town going the Airbnb route are getting results—it’s how they’re doing it that’s worth examining. Nathan Eldridge, whose photography business frequently takes him out of town for the last 12 years, says he started offering his apartment on the site this summer, and has been pleasantly surprised. “I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran, but I’m very happy with it so far,” he says. “I’ve had about nine or ten different guests, and all available dates through the rest of the summer have been filled.”

Eldridge, who lives with his two children in a “really big two-bedroom” within a three-unit building he owns on State St., offers his apartment for $175 a night. Figuring that his kid-friendly space makes him unique among Airbnb options, Eldridge considers himself “almost an ambassador of Portland rather than someone who makes money on vacant space.” He leaves customized groceries for his guests and makes himself available for direction among the city’s cultural attractions.

The sense of pride in being an honorable Airbnb host seems embedded within its core adherents. For traveler and host alike, the advantages to lodging in an Airbnb apartment rather than a hotel room are clear. One factor is the cost, as many rentals go for far less than the average price of a corporate hotel room or parlor B&B (Most rentals are within the $100-200 range, with some as low as $60 and others pushing $1,000 a night).

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