It’s been three years since James Holeman opted to give Airbnb hosting a try after deciding he wanted to do something new with a longtime rental he owned in Flagstaff’s South Side.
The arrangement has gone so well that after Holeman and his wife sold that house, they bought another property with three small homes that they plan to turn into more short term rentals.
He “can’t say enough good things,” about the experience, Holeman said. He and his wife enjoy doing fun things to customize the house for groups of guests and through hosting have met interesting people from all over the world, Holeman said.
Airbnb also gives him an opportunity to show visitors more of the town he loves.
“We enjoy the history of the neighborhood and the community, and we like to share it,” he said. “We have old properties, and they have history. It’s kind of an unspoken history and I don’t think it’s shared enough.”
The move to vacation rentals has been better on the economic side as well.
“It simply makes more money,” Holeman said. “Economically, it’s better for us.”
Across town, Laura and Tony Abrams are decidedly less thrilled with the short term rental trend. The number of homes listed on sites like Airbnb and VRBO has exploded in their Continental Country Club neighborhood in the past two to three years, with more than 100 homes listed this year compared to about 50 last year, Tony Abrams said. There are now three short-term rentals within 200 yards of the couple’s home, two of which have been “quite problematic,” Tony Abrams said.
Most people don’t mean to be disrespectful, but they’re in Flagstaff to have a good time, he said. Groups of 10 to 20 people regularly fill the home behind theirs and on summer nights, guests stay up late hanging out on the back deck while their noise drifts directly into their bedroom, Laura Abrams said. Vans, cars and even buses crowd the streets outside the rentals, the guests drive too fast and their dogs wander onto the Abrams’ property, poop and leave without anyone cleaning it up, Tony Abrams added.
"The quality of our life has gone down tremendously due to these people,” he said.
Across the country, short term rentals are skyrocketing — the number of units listed in Phoenix nearly tripled between 2014 and 2015, according to one report — and the trend has hit Flagstaff as well. The city now has more than 500 active Airbnb listings, according to the company. Figures for VRBO were not available.
Residents who have listed their homes as short term rentals cite the ability to make additional income, afford to buy a home in Flagstaff or invest in another home in the area. Several said they like hosting visitors and meeting new people. At the same time, locals say they are seeing their neighbors replaced by rotating casts of weekend guests, some cite more noise and traffic from short term rentals, and there’s a broadly shared worry that the trend is putting a squeeze on Flagstaff’s already tight housing market.
SHORT TERM RENTAL, LONG TERM AFFORDABILITY
Duffie Westheimer lives in Flagstaff's historic townsite neighborhood and has watched home after home switch from long term to short term rental. Westheimer said she stopped counting a couple of years ago when the number hit a dozen.
In response to a Facebook call-out for opinions on the rise of short term rentals in Flagstaff, many cited worries about the effect on affordable housing.
Housing agencies in town haven’t collected specific data that would indicate the rise in vacation rentals is having an impact on housing affordability and availability, but at least one national study suggests there is some effect on pricing.
A not-yet-published working paper put out this year found that across the United States, a 10 percent increase in Airbnb listings leads to a 0.42 percent increase in rents and a 0.76 percent increase in house prices. While a small percentage, it works out to a significant portion of overall price growth. From 2012 to 2016, annual rent growth was 2.2 percent and the annual house price growth was 4.8 percent, the paper found.
Anecdotal evidence suggests at least some homes in the Flagstaff area are turning from long term rentals to Airbnb or VRBO offerings.
In response to the Daily Sun’s Facebook callout, Christopher Gorney said he and his wife had their lease broken by one of their landlords because he wanted to turn it into an Airbnb. The landlord only needed to rent the property for nine days a month to make the rent the couple was paying, Gorney wrote.
“I get it from a business sense, but it’s terrible for the locals, especially when businesses are unwilling or unable to pay a livable wage,” he wrote.
Three other vacation rental hosts interviewed for this article said that before they started their current gig, their homes were long term rentals.
Alana Miller, a teacher in town, said she has seen several friends turn their long-term rentals into short-term ones for economic reasons. She doesn’t blame them, but said it’s still hard to see because many of those homes are relatively modest two and three bedrooms close to downtown that would otherwise be reasonably priced rentals for working-class families.
But Dawn Staszak, the owner of a long-term-turned-short-term rental, said more of the blame should be put on NAU for putting a squeeze on housing options. Over the past 10 years the university's enrollment has grown from about 14,000 students to 22,000.
“I look around this town and it’s sad. Everywhere is getting bought up and they are just putting up student housing. That’s where I’m mad,” said Staszak, who has lived in town since she was 5 years old.
Airbnb spokeswoman Laura Rillos also pointed out that most hosts in Flagstaff live in the homes they rent out and host guests “on a casual basis” for an average of 59 nights per year. That suggests they wouldn’t otherwise be available for a long-term tenant, Rillos wrote in an email.
WHY HOSTS SIGN ON
For Alithea Gorski, the advent of Airbnb has had a different impact, allowing her as a local to own a home affordably. By renting out one of the rooms in her house through Airbnb, Gorski said she’s able to earn about $800 per month that helps pay her mortgage and cover home maintenance.
When her guests ask for recommendations, she sends them to local businesses and makes sure they know things like how much water to take to the Grand Canyon and the need to keep off sensitive biological soil crust near Sedona, Gorski said. She imposes quiet hours for her guests and said her neighbors have never complained about the arrangement.
For Jill Paine, it was the desire to own and preserve a historic downtown home that motivated her to try VRBO instead of a long-term lease for a second home her family owns on Verde Street.
With a vacation rental, she can regularly clean and maintain the house, Paine said.
Depending on booking rates, Paine estimated she can pay the mortgage and make an additional $3,000 to $10,000 per year through the short term rental arrangement, but said her main motivation is building equity in the home as a long term investment.
It’s no small task to do the cleaning and administrative work required to list a home on Airbnb and VRBO, said Staszak, who does it all for the Coconino Estates home she owns with her sister and mother. While the work takes her about 20 hours a week, Staszak said she’s already making a profit and in December expects to make triple what the family was charging in monthly rent for the home until a year ago. Staszak said the additional income she makes from switching to short term rentals will allow her to scale back her childcare business as she gets older.
There are also the auxiliary jobs that get produced through the short term rental trend. After taking note of the rising tide of Airbnb and VRBO listings, Maryjane Morse parted from a career in the service industry and formed a vacation home cleaning and management business.
“At some point I said, this is not going away. This is how people like to travel, this is how I like to travel, so how do I get a piece of that, basically," she said.
Since starting the business in May, Morse said it has become a full-time job. She gets to choose her clients and create a somewhat flexible schedule that allows her to spend more time with her daughter. Now, she’s considering hiring her first employee, she said.
VIEW FROM NEXT DOOR
The excessive noise and parking and traffic problems that Tony and Laura Abrams have seen in their Country Club neighborhood are common complaints lodged against short term vacation rentals.
Peter Friederici said another effect for residents is the loss of neighbors. Half of the apartments in the complex next door to Friederici’s downtown Flagstaff home have been turned into short term rentals since this summer, he said. He hasn’t had any issues with the guests, but the short conversations on the sidewalk that he used to have with the apartment’s residents are gone, he said.
When short-term guests are noisy or damaging neighbors’ properties, it can sometimes feel like residents are stuck playing the role of babysitter to what have become profit centers for the homes' owners, Westheimer said.
On the other hand, the owners of vacation rentals have to keep their properties well maintained, so they often look nicer than some long-term rentals that get neglected by landlords, Westheimer said.
They also push up property values, which can be both good and bad.
“It’s all complex,” she said.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to short term rentals in Flagstaff, said Miller, the teacher. Right now, people are looking at them from an individualistic perspective, motivated by the extra money such rentals can make. But the long-term effects could be the loss of the city’s working class that can’t afford to live here, she said. She would like the city council to take up the issue and raise community awareness about it.
"It needs to be looked at not on an individual level but on a collective level of 'what is this doing to our town?'” Miller said.