The Two Faces of Airbnb

Lower Washington Street in Gloucester’s downtown.

“Airbnb has been blamed for rising rents in big cities like New York and San Francisco, but the company claims that home-sharing helps thousands of middle class people get by.” — Joe Mullin, Ars Technica

Airbnb, the Internet-based business that helps people make money by sharing their homes with out-of-town visitors, is thriving in Gloucester. According to an analytics company that processes Airbnb data, our city contains 129 active properties, mostly in East Gloucester, Lanesville, Annisquam, and along the Annisquam River.

Many of the listings are the classic coastal whole-house summer rentals that would have been leased by the week, the month, or the season even before the rise of Airbnb. But one of the strengths of Airbnb, from an economic justice perspective, is that its landlords are not just the wealthy. The company facilitates individual room rentals in smaller homes, allowing the average homeowner with a spare room to put up lodgers for the night. Thus the company’s name, an abbreviation for “air mattress bed and breakfast.” Even a studio apartment dweller can host, by setting up an extra futon in a corner and listing the space as a “shared room rental.”

Similarly, Airbnb makes travel more affordable for students and other budget-conscious visitors. The lowest-price listing I saw today was $60 for a private room in Annisquam with a full bath.

Yet Airbnb can also be financially damaging to communities, making life harder for local residents who wish to find housing.  Some hosts buy multiple properties to rent out short term.  These owners hire a third party to manage the listings and meet the guests. Such investment buyers drive up the selling price of houses and condos that may otherwise have been within reach of the average family.

One church member said of Gloucester’s rental market, “It’s like we’re living in a beautiful prison.” He and his wife pay $2500 per month to rent a small house on the ocean, yet “the houses that aren’t on the ocean are still $2200.” He estimates that he and his wife have spent $100,000 in rent the past several years, and because they can’t put aside enough for a down payment, “We’re always paying someone else’s mortgage. And for what? For the privilege of staying to the end of this month.”

In addition to high rents, Gloucester’s year-round tenant population has long struggled with a seasonal migration of its own. Landlords can make more money in the summer; thus many leases run only from September to May, and renters find themselves moving twice in one year, desperately competing for the shrinking pool of affordable places available in summer.

As a downtown resident, I often visualize how Airbnb will affect my neighborhood. Downtown is one of the city’s most affordable areas, with one of its most diverse populations. The new Beauport Hotel, on the formerly gritty Pavilion Beach, has become the flagship of the gentrification of downtown’s West End. The hotel draws attention to downtown as a tourist destination, but because the rooms are pricey (lowest available rate for tonight is $304) I can foresee many visitors wanting to stay near, but not in, the hotel. Only a dozen Airbnb properties currently exist downtown; more are sure to come in the next five years.  I foresee a ripple of new Airbnbs creeping up Washington Street. As a homeowner I stand to benefit financially from the trend, but many of my neighbors who are renters will not.

New York City, Berlin, and Barcelona have set new restrictions on short-term rentals because of the effects of Airbnb. What policy is the right choice for Gloucester?

–Jan Young

The purpose of this blog is to raise topics for dialogue and discussion. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church or its board of managers.




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