I never got used to that camping mat and would often lie awake staring at the ceiling. It didn’t offer much to look at, except the pipes that encased the Internet plumbing for the sixth floor. That morning had been the first time I showered in the men’s locker room without bothering to exercise.
To eat, I stockpiled a cache of Trader Joe’s entrees in the break room — no one noticed that a single pair of initials monopolized the freezer. Every night, my coworkers would remark on my sudden enthusiasm for budget reports and inquire about the midnight oil. It was still burning, I assured them.
After the cleaning crew left, I would unroll the stashed mat and spring my pillow from its locked drawer to settle in for the night. Falling asleep in absolute silence in a federal government–owned building in my pajamas was harder than I expected. All I could do was lie still and wonder how my life brought me to this windowless office in Washington, D.C. Or worry that a stranger was going through my drawers at home and violating the new bathrobe my mother had gotten me for my thirtieth birthday.
The year was 2011 and Airbnb was far from a household word. Telling my mother that “I could sleep in the office once in a while to earn extra income” made the absurdity of my plan palpable. I had to run the idea past someone, and Mom is a black belt in reality checks.
It didn’t surprise me that she couldn’t fathom why I would move out of my apartment for days on end because a stranger was paying me ninety dollars per night to sleep in my bed. To a woman who watches hours of crime dramas every day, the concept of Airbnb sounded harebrained. But I knew I wasn’t crazy — just desperate.
Our new boss made life hell. Six Sigma. Face time. Pulse checks. Office lingo began to creep into my vocabulary (one day I lost control and threatened to ping someone). Worse than the torturous white-boarding was the fact that my bad work habits and professional inertia were finally making a nihilist of me.
But there was a recession to think about. And while it frustrated the demands of an active critical faculty, my routine asked little of me. My lackadaisical nature was incompatible with the thrift and discipline necessary to walk away from a cushy government job-for-life. After every false start, I would trot out a different warm, comforting slanket of an excuse for not quitting: unemployment rates, familial disapproval, or the fact that I’ll never have it this good again.
My white knight took an unexpected form. While belatedly making travel arrangements for a trip to New Orleans, a travel-savvy friend suggested Airbnb. Different than the Bartertown feel of Craigslist, Airbnb offered identity verification and peer-to-peer reviews, providing an alternative to sending a cashier’s check to a “prominent genetic researcher” in Abu Dhabi for a room you have never seen before.
Carried along by a daiquiri buzz, tapping my foot to Frenchmen Street brass bands, I thought about pimping my own studio, with its tastefully matching IKEA furniture and downtown D.C. location. The idea felt too simple too work, but my Airbnb host confirmed how much money there was to be made and my remaining hesitation evaporated.
As soon as I got home from NOLA, I put operation “Get Money, Get Paid” into action.
* * *
“You’re not a serial killer or anything,” Courtney joked as she gave me a look of mock alarm. I laughed awkwardly and wondered if that was the same joke a real killer would use on her next victim to lower his guard (it’s always the pretty ones). A cartoonishly spinning newspaper popped into my head announcing next week’s big headline: HANDSOME MALE SLAUGHTERED IN HIS PRIME BY CRAZED, YET NORMAL-LOOKING FEMALE.
Courtney asked if it was my first time, which snapped me from my daymare. “Uh, yeah. The Airbnb photographer was just here a few days ago,” I replied. She flashed a knowing smile and the sight of her exposed teeth raised my awareness of how clammy my hands were. First contact with a flesh-and-blood guest had unexpectedly triggered a blind-date fight-or-flight response. Suddenly, I felt awkwardly verbose in a way that I was sure she could sense, talking too much with my hands and forgetting what public speaking class taught me about “ums” and “you knows.” It reminded me of the uncomfortably vulnerable sensation of hitchhiking.
The act of hosting had compelled me to audit my views on human nature. How did I expect guests would treat something that did not belong to them? Do people have enough common sense to be trusted to do the right thing? Had I not learned anything from my own scandalous treatment of rental cars and hotel rooms?
Since conventional wisdom — which I’d gleaned from surveying the eleven o’clock news in my childhood — holds that the world is a cornucopia of every kind of deviance, I tried not to think about worst-case scenarios. I was determined to rise above the overwrought and characteristically American concern regarding stranger danger, which seemed a fuddy-duddy holdover from my parents’ generation. Swept along by the credulous spirit of the sharing economy, I accepted my first few bookings with the most open mind I could muster.
Not every key handover felt as awkward as my tête-à-tête with Courtney. I grew into my hosting role and discovered that most guests typified the progressive-minded, pleasantly low-maintenance kind of people one might rub elbows with in a backpackers’ hostel. My initial guests were consistently uniform: Most everyone was young, from urban centers and college-educated. It was telling that none of my guests were dissuaded from staying with me by the fact that I didn’t have cable.
I surprised myself by how quickly I began to put faith in strangers. After guests checked out, I would consistently find thank-you notes or other indications of exceptional thoughtfulness: Dishes would be done and sheets folded, even though I had assessed a $25 cleaning fee. I (almost) felt bad charging them to stay. Airbnb’s confidence-building measures, which let guests and hosts rate their transactions, is supposed to keep everyone on their best behavior, and proof rapidly piled up that the world was not populated with sacrificial Satanists and child-porn location scouts.
While my faith in humanity blossomed, my sanity withered. Sleep was hard to come by when every sound could have been interpreted as the footsteps of a security guard. Since I did not know the consequences for squatting in a government building (there seemed to be little precedence for what I was doing), my imagination was liberated to come up with all kinds of absurd outcomes. I went to great lengths to cover my tracks, fearing that a bearded, swarthy fellow caught on his way to the bathroom at three a.m. might be misinterpreted as up to something unwholesome.
To mitigate my paranoia, I took great pains to enshroud my overnights in secrecy. I hid the details of my activities from all but one coworker and developed elaborate excuses for working late. I microwaved all dinners and breakfasts and kept a stash of granola bars and popcorn for those long, sleepless nights. If I did manage to sleep, I would be up at five or six a.m. to change out of my nightclothes and into one of the suits I left hanging from my coat rack.
No one took notice that half my wardrobe was strewn about my office, or that I was the first one at work every morning. Despite what in hindsight was a piss-poor attempt at covertness, I never had any close calls, which convinced me I was destined to pull off my version of The Great Escape.
I was on track, according to a slap-dash Excel budget, to resign in a year. An extra $1,350 a month was flowing into my coffers. Although it wasn’t raining cash, I was matching what I made with what I saved by paring down my lifestyle expenses. The final factor in my favor was that my plan coincided with Airbnb’s asymptote-like upsurge in popularity. After receiving my first batch of positive reviews, the reservations poured in. Sleep came easier on my camping mat, and I dreamed in eighties montages about being a runaway Airbnb success story.
But there is a reason it’s not called Murphy’s Theory.
* * *
I missed the first text from my next-door neighbor. My phone was on silent in case the office’s building security was as omnipresent as my imagination made them out to be.
“George, can you text or call me when you get this? I hear heavy metal coming through the wall.”
I missed her second text too.
“You might get in trouble if you don’t call your guests. There is a guy in the hallway yelling nonsense and blasting loud heavy metal with your door open. I think he just told me to ‘get the fuck back inside.’”
Stephanie, the shy, eye-contact-avoiding twentysomething to whom I’d handed the key to earlier that day, had not mentioned anything about a second guest before I accepted her reservation; she only mentioned her boyfriend when I quipped about her excess luggage. However, pressed to get back to the refuge of my office, I shrugged off the omission.
Stephanie’s story checked out: She lived in suburban Maryland with her family and had decided to rent my studio for a staycation. Who was I to care if she had a “friend” come along, especially since, next to budget tourists, privacy-seeking couples had become my bread and butter. When they needed a place that was cheaper and less sketchy than a motel to bust out the ball gag, these lovers would go looking for modestly priced accommodations on Airbnb. Thus, Stephanie’s predicament was not unusual, especially during the summer months, when there was a big push to keep long-distance college relationships alive. (“Airbnb: One billion love affairs served.”)
My neighbor’s texts were the first time there had been trouble in paradise, so I immediately dialed the phone number Stephanie had verified with Airbnb. It went straight to voicemail and my stomach dropped a little. The anxious waters poised on the shore of my consciousness drew back in preparation for a tsunami of panic.
I followed the call with a succinct text: “Hi, Stephanie. Folks in the building say that a young man — your boyfriend? — is standing in the hall outside my apartment shouting at people. If it doesn’t stop immediately, I will get the police involved. You two will be ejected from the premises with no refunds issued or deposits returned. You have one minute to assure me the situation is under control before I take action. Thank you.”
That’s what a bluff reads like. Calling law enforcement now, while treading in the murky legal waters of subletting, would be like asking the police to retrieve a stolen dime bag. The cops were my nuclear option, but if I wanted to keep hosting (and avoid potential fines or perhaps even eviction), I had to figure this out on my own. Five minutes passed and still no word from Stephanie. With time to kill, I wrote to Airbnb customer service for some clarification.
Does the $1,000,000 coverage cover my apartment if I don’t own it and don’t have express permission from the landlord to sublet? Does the $1,000,000 cover personal injury? What if a guest (this is unlikely but bear with me) is tripping on drugs and hurts a neighbor? Would Airbnb’s coverage help defray her hospital bills?
It’s no secret that Airbnb’s housing stock is partially composed of listings that are technically forbidden by a landlord, co-op board, or city ordinance. Airbnb does not reveal data on its hosts, making it difficult to paint a clear picture of the ratio of legitimate hosts to those who operate in violation of leases and local laws. But from my interactions with other hosts, and one blogger’s survey of thousands of Airbnb listings in New York City, you get the impression that Airbnb does a sizable amount of business with people who should not be hosting and are not covered by Airbnb and thus wholly liable for runaway guests.
A response from Airbnb customer service confirmed that sinking feeling: “We require that all hosts are legally in the right to use the Airbnb service. If you don’t have that right, then that would be a violation of our terms so we must suggest you get full permission to sublet your listing. Anything that occurs outside of the listing would be handled outside of Airbnb.”
My guest’s radio silence continued, so I pumped Airbnb’s website for further guidance. Nothing in Stephanie’s profile or demeanor had been a red flag, but had I been lulled into a false sense of security? Were there common scams I should have been on the lookout for? While the site featured a lot of pictures of smiling, happy hosts and ecstatic guests shaking hands, I failed to find much practical advice in the face of guests’ illicit activity without digging deep into the FAQ section.
Peer reviews and linked social media accounts mean that no Airbnb user is anonymous, unlike Airbnb’s sketchier older sibling, Craigslist. The digital reputation that Airbnb built and maintains, which justifies the fee they charge, is the lynchpin of security. But unlike Craigslist and its front-and-center warnings about scams and bad actors, Airbnb downplays the possibility of malevolent forces acting on guests and hosts.
This is understandable considering the uphill battle involved in convincing potential users to trust more despite the prevailing zeitgeist. However, this arguably necessary sugarcoating blinds users to the prospect of baleful circumstances: There is little straight talk about what happens when trust fails. Would I have ever become a host if the first thing I read on Airbnb’s site were prescriptions for what to do when a guest tries to extort you for a discount? Or if Airbnb reinforced the fact that, unless you own your apartment, odds are you are on the hook if something goes wrong (assuming that most hosts are in violation of their leases)?
The vicious circle of paranoid thoughts left me with only one option: brave security’s scrutiny and get back to my apartment before some meth head turned the place into the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. While walking to the bank of elevators in my office, the motion-sensor lights triggered along the length of the hallway, as though my dread exuded an electricity of its own.
As the lift doors slid closed, a text from an unknown number flitted through on the last sliver of signal: “George, this is Stephanie. My work phone died before I had a chance to write you back. I am so sorry for any trouble. We won’t disturb anyone in the building and have turned the music down.” I never found out if my office had hidden cameras but no one ever asked me what I was doing in the elevator at two a.m. vigorously fist-pumping the air while dressed in yesterday’s wrinkled khakis.
During lunch the next day, I rushed home for an inspection, expecting pig’s blood and dried vomit—or perhaps bisected rattlesnakes and empty cans of Mountain Dew. Instead, the apartment was spotless.
On my desk sat an unopened package of window blinds with a note attached. The paper read, “I hope these replacements fit. There’s the receipt for Target if they don’t. Sorry again for the trouble.” I looked up from the delicate feminine handwriting to my window and my eyes met a set of drooping blinds broken down the middle, resembling a stack of dojo plywood.
* * *
Too determined to quit my job to stop, I told myself that my luck would continue to hold and I resumed hosting after the incident. I doubled the security deposit to filter out troublemakers and drafted very stringent house rules. I was a little worried that the aggressive tone of my listing would drive away potential guests, but the brush with disaster compelled me to abjure my pledge of openness.
My first guest under the new regime was a former Hungarian diplomat. You might have seen his 2007 guitar-playing session on the Colbert Report. The next guest was Steve — he was in town to clerk for a Supreme Court judge. Then Rasmus, a German teenager with a head for numbers and a fellowship with the Democrats’ big-data think tank, rented the place. There was Vanessa the brain doctor, two journalists from Al Jazeera, and a string of tech entrepreneurs in town to pitch their visions. Gone were the “aw shucks” backpackers and love-nesters of yore, replaced by a strangely homogeneous crop of itinerant academics, wonks, fellows and interns.
It didn’t take much critical thinking to understand what caused the demographic shift: a higher nightly rate and substantial security deposit signaled something unspoken about the studio; perhaps my original price and willingness to take all comers screamed “too good to be true.” After I stopped being an Airbnb slut, I was mostly contacted by guests who were staying longer and willing to pay a higher rate, making the listing even more of a goldmine. Stephanie and her unnamed boyfriend/dealer/pimp deserve some credit. Thanks to the restrictions they inspired, I was able to leave D.C. way ahead of schedule.
One day, after saving more than $25,000 in six months, I stoically walked into my boss’s office and resigned. There was no explosive catharsis. I signed a few documents in awkward silence and walked out of Bob’s office a free man. The responsible thing would be to say I had a plan — but it was more of a general inclination toward flight. However, quitting gave me the space to explore my options while also learning some harsh realities about life outside of the government. Although being a freelance copywriter and copy editor has been a struggle professionally, I would have never known what’s possible had I not quit. Taking risks seemed a lot easier after letting strangers inhabit my apartment.
It’s now two years since I resigned. With only a handful of freelancing gigs, the immeasurable generosity of friends, and renting my apartment long-term via Airbnb, I was able to travel, to write, and to learn the ropes of a new profession.
Nowadays, when I’m explaining my backstory, a lot of credit goes to Airbnb. If used wisely and responsibly, Airbnb can give people a chance to alleviate the rising costs of city living, meet new and interesting people and the opportunity to visit places they previously couldn’t. But before we all put the Airbnb staff on our Christmas card list, it is important to remember that this beneficial tool — which is essentially just a well-run exchange — is in a precarious position, along with those who might depend on it for income.
In a country that has “Warning: Contents Hot” on its coffee cups, we are one bad apple away from Airbnb’s detractors striking at the Achilles’ heel of the sharing economy by playing up our worst fears. In addition, the legality of Airbnb is the subject of increasing debate at the local government level. Tenants rights groups raise justifiable concerns over hosts who abuse the Airbnb system to the annoyance of their neighbors. Hotels, which often pay a bed tax, point to Airbnb’s unfair sidestepping of local taxes to undercut their business.
For these reasons, I cannot consider my story a lasting blueprint for the success of the sharing economy. The increasing commercialization of Airbnb will shift the guest demographic from early-adopting, progressively minded individuals to a more general cross-section of humanity, ensuring shady activity will endure. Or Airbnb won’t be able to fend off local officials’ accusations that it is evading taxes, raising rents or endangering neighbors, and its services will be curtailed. The last thing you want to do is depend on Airbnb for a large portion of your income just in time to see the bottom drop out.
Next time, I’ll just have to career-shift the old-fashioned way: by moonlighting as an unlicensed private detective.