AirBnb Ruined Our Lives and Turned Us Into Entitled City Dwellers

Bed Stuy

It’s every big city lover’s dream: to live in a nice apartment—sans roaches, caved-in ceilings, or a 45-year-old roommate who smokes in the kitchen—without paying top-dollar rent. For most of us (who likely inhabit such ill-famed apartments in neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s South Williamsburg), it is a pipe dream; others simply work all the time so they can pay rent to live someplace decent, even if that leaves little time to focus on other passions.

If you live in New York, you’ve probably seen the subway ads for AirBnb. They display hosts who have made serious money through the tech company—the king of the “sharing economy.” AirBnb has recently won a significant legal battle by proving its own legality. It was ruled that AirBnb hosts who live in the apartment or house they are renting out are within the boundaries of the law. Well, that’s us. We’re legal. And yet, if I’m honest with myself, AirBnb has basically ruined my life. And it can ruin yours, too.

Nearly two years ago, I moved into a newly-renovated duplex apartment in a beautiful 1886 brownstone on a tree-lined street in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. The neighborhood was a little sleepy at the time, and still is, but as bars, coffee shops, and restaurants continue to open, the rents have been climbing. When we moved in, in October 2012, our rent was $3,800 per month; there were four bedrooms plus one that was more like a shack leading to the backyard, but which of course we quickly rented out on Craigslist for $750 per month. But even then, our rent was still above $3000, and we were part-time employed women in our late twenties; there was no way could we afford to pay $1,000 each. I had never paid more than $750 per month to rent and even that had been difficult during times when I’d be scraping together a living through freelance journalism and substitute teaching. There were moments when I seriously considered becoming an egg donor, if only for a few months of financial security. (For the record, I have consistently applied for full-time jobs despite the dismal employment climate; I’ve even had several promising interviews, ever since finishing graduate school in 2010, so don’t accuse me of never trying.)

Our plan, hatched in secrecy from the landlord and the realtors, was to use AirBnb to fund the new apartment. Upstairs, where the kitchen and common room are located, we have a spacious master bedroom with two tall windows, two closets, and exposed brick. Cha-ching—within a week of moving in, using a profile that I’d set up in my previous apartment, a dinky place where I rented out one of the rooms for $50 per night, we had our first guests. They paid around $70 per night. We quickly upped it to $75 for the first person, and then $20 for each additional, and we were in business. In that first autumn we lived in our lovely new space, we brought in between $1,500 to $2,000 each month, leaving us to pay less than $700 each, and even as little as $400 after factoring in utilities. We felt exalted, but we were most certainly working for our money. There was a lot to do.

Each guest had to be convinced to stay with us, as opposed to the other thousands of potential hosts in Brooklyn, through a series of messages in which we promised them that they would indeed have their own private room and bathroom (the duplex has a bathroom on each floor), and answered all sorts of questions ranging from how long it took to get to Times Square (30 minutes on the A train) to whether the neighborhood was safe (kind of, if you didn’t act stupid) to whether they could have shoes delivered to our house (OK, assuming someone is home when they are delivered). Once the guest confirmed, we initiated another set of communications. They had to be told the address and how to arrive to our house from a number of potential locations (airport, train station, highway). We had to find out roughly when they were arriving—and then arrange amongst the three of us who would greet them.

There was the preparation. For each guest, we had to clean the room thoroughly—sweeping and dusting, washing and changing linens, taking out trash, cleaning the bathroom. Ask your average twenty-something how often she cleans her apartment, and the answer will likely be once or twice monthly. We had to clean constantly because of the need to impress guests. An unhappy guest—whether due to an unkempt room, lack of clear communications, one of us showing a bad attitude, or anything, really—could leave a negative review on our listing page, which could deter guests from choosing to lodge with us.

And when the guest arrived, it was only the beginning. They had to be shown how to navigate the locks to our brownstone, which spot in the refrigerator they could use, where things were in the kitchen, and how to get on the wireless internet. They had more questions: Where was the subway? How late did it run? Where could they park? Groceries? Again, safety late at night? Any good Broadway shows on now? Best cheap restaurants? We became ambassadors of the City, tour guides, Zagat informants. I put together a list of our recommended spots as well as a few helpful phone numbers and websites, laminated it, and left it in the guest bedroom. This helped.

But the work, nevertheless, began to take a toll. What’s more, it was occasionally confusing. Whose turn was it to make up the room, and greet the guests? What were we to do about rude guests, or guests who puked on the bed (happened); what were we to do if none of us could be home to greet a guest? Or if one of us wanted to go out of town for a month? We found ourselves needing more stuff—more bedding, another bed entirely, wall hooks, towels. Each purchase prompted a discussion about whether or not we were accumulating too much stuff, and investing more than we were getting. Of course, we were getting a lot. The money continued to come in, solidly. We used our savings profitably, each of us working on our respective careers: in teaching yoga and acting for my roommates, and writing for me. I saved up enough money while working two jobs during our first year that I was able to travel in India for three months, realizing a lifelong dream and also taking a much-needed break from the whirlwind that is New York. I returned refreshed, but no less uncertain that what we were doing was right.

It was that I sensed amongst the three of us a dangerous rising tide of something our generation was increasingly being accused of—something I’d never suspected that three hard-working women such as ourselves might find ourselves displaying. But it was: We were becoming entitled.

It wasn’t just that we fought, constantly—which we did. It wasn’t just that the fighting and stress was threatening to erode a 10-year friendship with one of my roommates, whom I’d met in college. It was that I sensed amongst the three of us a dangerous rising tide of something our generation was increasingly being accused of—something I’d never suspected that three hard-working women such as ourselves might find ourselves displaying. But it was: We were becoming entitled. We suddenly wanted every facet of our home lives to be perfect; every little thing that did not meet our perfectionist standards became a motivator for a display of drama. Flurries of e-mails were sent out on a regular basis about dishes being left in the sink, about lights that were not switched off, about a floor that nobody had swept. We instated a chore wheel, which led to a series of accusations about who was doing more work than the others. Our monthly meetings, where we took care of accounting—often complicated in itself—became drawn-out affairs, often resulting in heated discussions, aggressive tones, and full-on yelling. And when we finally had to reckon with the fact that AirBnb was being forced to tax us—under pressure from the IRS—we were fraught. We’d never imagined we’d be made to treat our AirBnb income as, well, actual income. We discussed forming an LLC, but it seemed like too much paperwork. We finally figured out all the tax stuff, and paid it. But it was complicated, since two of us were hoping to retain Medicaid privileges. One of us declared more of the income. And that person has held this against the other two of us, an eternal vendetta; we live in her debt. And we fought, incessantly, about all of this.

It got to the point where the three of us went to see a mediator. The City offers mediation at no cost to a group that is unable to resolve an issue, presumably something potentially litigious related to property. There we were, three women with no real, tangible issue under dispute, except our “communication problems.” I felt sick listening to us talk about every tiny thing that was bothering us. Was this what I’d gone to university, and graduate school for? To fuss and fight over my domicile, with two other educated women? In an age when women were finally, after generations of struggle, able to pursue our dreams to the fullest extent and have incredible careers, we were obsessed with our home; it consumed my thoughts and energy to an extent far beyond that which my writing did, or anything else.

But I felt—and feel—trapped. The only way, I knew, to get out of the situation would be to either go back to one of the roach-infested, crappy apartments I’d paid too much to live in before—or land a full-time job so that I could afford to live someplace decent in this insanely expensive borough. (The options of moving to Queens or the Bronx occasionally float through my head, but alas, I am hopefully devoted to my dear, if over-hyped, Brooklyn.)

New AirBnb guests have arrived. I’ve let my roommates do most of the preparation. I was working and had writing to focus on. We had several verbal battles over the usual suspects: AirBnb, the house, chores, so on. And now my roommates are barely speaking to me. Here I am, in the middle of two great and significant wars, in a country stricken by violence and poverty, in a world that promises nothing to people of my generation, debating what to do about my little, tiny household. And about my life. I spend one day a week now applying for jobs, and I’m also looking for apartments once again. I don’t know how it will end, or whether I will ever repair my relationship with my college friend after two years of such tense, bitter cohabitation. But I do know that I will make the very best of my time here, and do everything I can to stave off this encroaching sense of entitlement. I’ve been working harder and longer hours at writing, and getting out more job applications, too. I want to see an end to this Era of AirBnb, even though I’m afraid of what it might look like: a windowless shoe-box room in Bushwick? A tidy place to myself all the way out in Brighton Beach? A cramped cubicle where I push out copy for some ad agency for 10 hours each day?

When you are supposedly “living the dream”—that clichéd term that every chump has on his OKCupid profile, which always turns me off, but which I think applies to how my roommates and I saw ourselves at the beginning of this venture—it’s far too easy to imagine that you have somehow earned it; that this is the way things are supposed to be, for you—because you have trumped society. You have thought outside the box, and created your own rules, which allow you to do whatever you want. But there are consequences to this way of living, I’ve learned. Emotional distress, broken ties, and existential confusion are among them.

There are times, too, when hosting guests through AirBnb has been fun and entertaining. I love practicing Spanish and French with our European guests, and hearing about their lives back home. Occasionally we all go out to the bar across the street, get beers, and tell stories. I will confess that each of us has had crushes, and even relatively benign make-out sessions with a few of our more charming male guests.
But perhaps we’re too old for this kind of fun. Perhaps, now, we’re looking for something more, something bigger. Success in our careers. A room to call our own, and only our own—not something we have to share or rent out. Eventually, each one of us will get there, I am sure of it. But not by believing we are entitled to it. By what, then? By “working hard” in a world where work is dreary drudgery, and yet the thing we consider ourselves lucky to get? The thing we’ve been working toward? To work, and to work, and to work, and to work, until that is all we are, and everything there is, and nothing else matters but work.

 

Rachel Signer is a writer living (albeit precariously) in Brooklyn. She was a 2013-2014 Fiction Fellow at the CUNY Writers Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @rachsig.

Photo: Mike Goren

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40 Comments / Post A Comment

srmattew (#3,434)

Why not just rent out the master bedroom for a higher share ($1400 or $1500 seems reasonable for having your own bathroom)?

thejacqueline (#799)

@srmattew Seriously. I would definitely pay $14-1500 for my own bathroom in an apt that had backyard access!

cryptolect (#1,135)

@srmattew I keep reading your username as smatthew and thinking about NewsRadio. So thank you for that.

Monica (#7,691)

Sad and sweet. I hope you and your friend can move past this.

gridmonte (#5,744)

I like srmattew’s idea. Or at least using some of the AirBnb income to outsource the housecleaning.

gyip (#4,192)

@gridmonte Def. Find a good housekeeper. Create a job! Or support existing ones.

garli (#4,150)

I enjoyed reading this. I’m always interested in the trade offs people make to live somewhere that’s more expensive and if they think the tradeoffs are worth it.

cryptolect (#1,135)

This reminded me of a book I loved when I was a kid called… “The Homework Machine”? It was about three kids who built a machine to do their homework. It ruined their friendship and at the end they realized that in order to input all the relevant knowledge into the machine, they had had to do even MORE work than they were trying to avoid by building the machine in the first place. It doesn’t sound like you’re quite there yet. I hope your friendship survives and that you can keep your sweet apartment!

flossy (#7,693)

Oh, I’m sorry–is life hard when you’re not willing to get a full time job, OR live anywhere but Brooklyn, OR pay more than $750/month in rent? Have some more white whine, why don’t you?

jquick (#3,730)

@flossy Seriously. Part time jobs, either living or wanting to live off the govt, yet choosing to live in a place that rents for $3800. That alone sounds entitled.

If you really, truly want a job, move to where they are. Unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in 6 years. Jobs are there, just maybe not in hipster neighborhoods.

@flossy It was the “push out copy for some ad agency for 10 hours each day” that got me. Normally, I try to understand where people are coming from but this still screams entitled to me. No, you’re not entitled to earn a living off of writing. There are lot of writers who hold full time jobs and manage to write that working shouldn’t be a terrible thing. (And heck, there is always the option of temping or being a receptionist. You can write during those gigs as well). Its the idea of someone who isn’t willing to sacrifice now for later gains. If she were, then she’d have no real problem moving to another part of Brooklyn where rent is cheaper (like mine!).

beastlyburden (#6,122)

@happy_misanthrope That would have been a really interesting piece–how entitled are we to the work we want. Logic says we have zero entitlement, but human beings are funny and complicated and can convince ourselves of pretty much anything. I would have loved to have read about that particular thought process.

gridmonte (#5,744)

@happy_misanthrope Yes I noticed that line, too, and I thought about Hannah on Girls complaining about working at the magazine, only to find out her coworkers were accomplished writers.

@happy_misanthrope That got me to. I went from freelancing to full time work for financial and personal reasons and I don’t appreciate the insinuation that those who pursue full time work in lieu of hustling in a creative field are somehow chumps or desk monkeys.

@fo (#839)

@JNC Musings Factory: “I don’t appreciate the insinuation that those who pursue full time work in lieu of hustling in a creative field are somehow chumps or desk monkeys.”

Wha? That doesn’t endear you to the contemporary, hipster/creative (broadly speaking) community? You don’t care to be both (a) condescended to as a sell out of some sort, and (b) listen to how hard it is to afford Brook-town rent + artisinal coffee + craft beer + pop-up dinners with michelin starred chefs + international travel while pursuing one’s creative interests?

I, personally, think that that is the highest form of altruism imaginable–that such wonderful creatures would even deign to share their thoughts with the likes of you and me.

ps: Not a comment on the post, per se, or the author, but on the overall affect of certain of her fellow travllers.

hershmire (#695)

The hotel business is one tough mother. And you went into a partnership with two other people without a contract or clear guidelines of who is responsible for what. As my dad always said (and which I until recently blissfully ignored): “Get it in writing.”

Chalk it up as a learning experience (and always assume you have to pay taxes).

notnefkat (#6,019)

My boyfriend and I Airbnb’d our apartment for certain weekends (and sometimes weeks) throughout 2012-2013. I think it was an incredible opportunity to have been able to make so much money doing that (and I really mean so. much. money), but I don’t think I would have the energy for it anymore. We, too, were constantly hustling to clean the apartment in time for the next guest, running out and buying new towels when the last guest stole them, stained them, etc. We were lucky in that we had a place outside of the city to stay (about two hours away), so whenever we needed to save some money on any given month, we’d just take Airbnb guests and leave for a few days.

Too often, though, we would Airbnb our place despite having a solid week of work in the city (we were freelancers at the time), or an early morning meeting downtown. We actually found ourselves paying to stay at a (hilarious, mirrored-ceiling) motel in New Jersey just so we would be close enough to get to our jobs the following morning. Was it worth it? Probably, especially those weekends where we’d make $800 just to leave. Would I do it again? No.

CeeEm (#5,833)

I know this isn’t the point at all, but I don’t understand some bk dwellers’ aversion to Queens. Queens is GREAT! I have friends who moved from Bushwick to Astoria and could not be happier.

tw0lle (#4,354)

@CeeEm stop queens is terrible never move to queens rats will eat you. (I live in Astoria and my fear of impending rent increases is a constant source of anxiety.)

beastlyburden (#6,122)

I thought this was a really interesting, well-written piece on the often ignored costs of Airbnb and the sharing economy, but I don’t understand how the writer connects this to the concept of entitlement.

I’m still not sure what she feels entitled to, either. At first, it’s for “every facet of our home lives to be perfect,” but that quickly falls apart in the following sentences; if that’s what they wanted, why the drama about dirty dishes and chore wheels and passive-aggressive emails? (Which also all seem like pretty standard pitfalls of living with roommates–so much so that they’re basically tropes.)

Then it seems like the “encroaching entitlement” she’s fighting could either be feeling entitled to letting her roommates “do most of the preparation” for rentals while (presumably?) benefiting from the extra income, although it’s unclear. Then she finishes by saying that we’ll all get a room of our own, but only if we don’t believe we’re entitled to it… but how does that connect to the entitlements of domestic perfection or “easy” money?

All of these are interesting ideas, but frankly, I’m not sure what they have to do with Airbnb.

Weasley (#1,419)

How were you able to get the apartment in the first place if you can’t afford it on your own?

madrassoup (#929)

@Weasley Oh I’m sure the answer is a guarantor. Guarantors are the glue that holds class stratification together!

sharongracepjs (#5,107)

@Weasley This was my question as well, considering I’ve just come off an apartment search in which two full-time-employed women failed to qualify for a shared $1500/month apartment in Inwood…

billrob (#7,694)

I don’t get the tax thing. Nobody pays taxes on subletting a room. It doesn’t make sense, unless the room brings in more than the proportionate rent, and that’s a big judgment call that the IRS isn’t going to care about.

hershmire (#695)

@billrob If it’s income, it’s taxable. They’re pulling in $18,000 – $24,000 per year renting their room. You bet Uncle Sam wants a piece of that.

Plus, AirBnB was requiring them to file taxes, because AirBnB is covering their own asses. If you don’t declare 20 grand in income and the IRS finds out, they’re going to go after you and they’re going to make it hurt.

Edit: I’m also pretty certain she admitted to Medicaid fraud in print.

billrob (#7,694)

@hershmire well income is revenues minus expenses. The expenses here easily reach $18,000 – $24,000. utilities, sheets, rent, it’s all expenses.

steponitvelma (#914)

@billrob Except that since they didn’t plan on paying taxes they probably didn’t keep logs of how much money they were spending, thus making it hard to calculate deductions. Plus, they were trying to make a profit and it sounds like they did, so there would still be some taxable income.

hershmire (#695)

@steponitvelma Save those receipts.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

3800$ per month?!?!? Please everyone immediately move to second tier cities where you can live like a king for 1200$ month.

lemonadefish (#3,296)

@EA_Mann Yes…. my mortgage in a maybe third-tier city is $1700/mo, for 6600 square feet right downtown. I have friends in more reasonable houses a mile or two out who pay $750 a month for an entire house that they own. Thinking about hustling hard enough to pay $3500 in rent gives me a panic attack!

Liz (#504)

So basically, AirBnb ruined your life by making you actually do work for the thousands of dollars you were making each month? And–even worse–menial labor, like sweeping and doing laundry? But that’s for poor people! Frankly, I’m a little disappointed in the Billfold for publishing something with a title this clickbait-y. AirBnb did not ruin anything, your desire to live out your Girls-esque fantasy in the sweet sweet air of Brooklyn did.

rachsig (#7,702)

I appreciate these comments, especially beastlyburden’s critique above. It was a very honest, sincere piece, and I have no problem admitting that many things about it are problematic. I wrote it in a flash of emotion over the course of 45 minutes, and now it’s published here.

sox (#246)

@rachsig I’m not sure that qualifying the honest sincerity of your piece by dismissively claiming you churned it out in 45 mins helps your case much. Perhaps a first draft could have been a 45 min dash of ideas that could have been refined into a more robust, thoughtful essay. Perhaps I’m a bit surprised that the Billfold editors wouldn’t have pushed harder for this as well.

Regardless, hopefully you can take the criticism in the comments constructively and use the experience of publishing this piece to determine next steps in the problematic situation you find yourself in.

I personally do believe that we as people should be “entitled” to follow our passions as our vocations. Our culture can make the economic equation of that difficult, and there are significant trade offs to choosing a life of art that brings in little income versus choosing a life that prioritizes financial stability. I’ve been in both boats and it’s tough either way.

Good luck in getting it figured out, and for sure- you should consider asking this site to republish an updated edited version that is more polished and leaves out the personal decision about how you handled the Medicaid thing.

rachsig (#7,702)

and madrassoup – about guarantors – that might be my favorite comment

With all the bitterness at having to work for income, having to consider income as income, and the and passive-aggression towards the roommate who is resentful of her role in your and your other roommate’s medicaid fraud, it doesn’t seem so much like AbnB has turned you in to an entitled city dweller so much as it has highlighted the unavoidable fact of your entitlement for you. And if you’re not even willing to consider moving to a different part of the same city, saying you’re “willing to do anything” to avoid this untenable situation is… a bit melodramatic.

I know it’s harsh to hear these things from strangers, but seriously- recognizing entitlement is a truly good first step, but you’re actually scamming other workers out of money (money that is, as you have learned, the product of hard labor!) and genuinely poor (not poor-to-the-IRS-and-compared-to-their-expenses-poor) people out of health beenfits to maintain your lifestyle. Stop that. Even if you have to move, stop that.

traceamount (#7,706)

This essay provides a nice window onto the hidden costs of AirBnB. It’s really useful to get insiders stories that complicate the one promoted by the company itself. But the writing definitely needs work. First, I disagree a bit with the set-up. AirBnB ads (at least the television ones) don’t “display hosts who have made serious money through the tech company.” The ads are much more insidious and they disguise or downplay the profit element (like so much of the new sharing economy discourse does) through images of community: the joyful backyard dinners shared between AirBnB hosts and guests, the host who put up victims of Superstorm Sandy for free, etc. Second, I agree with above comments that the piece names the problem–”entitlement” but misses where the real entitlement issues are: the notion that a full-time job at an ad agency or an apartment in Queens are both out of the question. Third, some of the word choices feel labored (maybe out of a thesaurus) or incorrect: “ill-famed apartment”, “instated a chore wheel”, and “hopefully devoted to Brooklyn” should be “hopelessly devoted”.

happygosnarky (#7,716)

Aw, poor thing. I’m so glad my tax dollars could help pay for your Medicaid while you were on your three-month sabbatical in India. Sure sounds like you needed it!

Living within your means. Give it a try.

John Remy (#7,719)

Sorry to hear about your negative experience with Airbnb. It was good to read about it because I am considering becoming an Airbnb host myself (live in Downtown LA with two roommates and it’s super expensive). I read about it all the time on sites like http://www.learnairbnb.com, but I am not sure if I am ready to take the plunge yet. You provided a great viewpoint that I don’t think gets addressed too often, if at all.
Thanks for sharing…good food for thought.

Hire a professional house keeper, use an accountant, and set-up a corp. You’ll lose some of that income but save yourself a lot of headaches.

nychotpilot (#7,777)

Brian Cheeky – Airbnb’s scofflaw 30 something boss – has the last laugh yet again.

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