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 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