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  • 21 Oct 2014

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Wherever you see it, you'll hear ka-ching!

Airbnb rewards niceness and takes the hassle out of renting your personal space to strangers. No wonder Portlanders are ignoring the law and using it. But does it pay well to host, and what are the costs?


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Melissa Toman on the couch she reupholstered for Airbnb guests who take her studio for $108 a night.The company’s charm offensive ranges from laying out breakfast on testimony day at City Hall to taking groups of hosts to nice restaurants in their neighborhood.

Even the “belo” logo or symbol of belonging, is being pushed as a cute art project, crowdsourced marketing. Wherever you see it you’ll know you belong, is the tag line.

Melissa Toman belongs. She loves Portland. For the last two months Toman has been subletting her studio apartment just off Northwest 22nd Avenue for $108 a night. What guests get is a bed screened by an IKEA bookcase, a long couch and a tiny kitchen with a view of the neighbor’s siding. She stays at her grandmother’s place in an RV when she has Airbnb guests, recently spending a whole month there — which got a bit old. Toman’s original price, an Airbnb suggestion, was $98 per night but raised it to reduce demand.

“I wanted to go on a one-day camping trip recently and put it up, one-day. It went fast.” She now maintains a four-day minimum to reduce the amount of changeover time — cleaning, dealing with keys, orienting guests.

The knowledge that seven paid nights will cover her $750 monthly rent is a comfort.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - American Gothic 2.0: Rachel Robinson and Joe Culhane can afford to work as atists by letting out their backyard studio in Concordia on Airbnb, and occasionally, their whole house. Its changing the landscape of our lives: what is work, what is acceptable socially and in our neighborhood, says Culhane. “Being a designer I think about the space and want it to be very calming,” she says. “Like in a hotel you expect to have just the things you need and nothing more.” So an iron and a notepad are available, but the furniture and kitchenware are minimal.

Valuable things, such as her organic cotton comforter and her cast iron pans, stay in the closet. She enjoyed the challenge of writing out the house rules: a one pager is attached to the fridge.

“I have it listed at $1,600 a month in case I decide to go on a long vacation.” Is her landlord OK with it all?

“He never calls me back when I ask for repairs, so I feel that he’s not really interested.”

Toman actually wants to cut back on Airbnb.

“I’ve worked in hotels and this is like running all aspects of a hotel. It’s not passive. I want to be focusing more of my time on my design business.”

But — and this will be music to Airbnb’s ears as it promotes itself as an aid to entrepreneurs — Toman’s Airbnb income has allowed to her to afford a small workshare space in Southeast and take on a contract worker.

According to Airbnb’s Portland Economic Impact Study (http://publicpolicy.airbnb.com/airbnb-communitys-economic-impact-portland/) the typical host here earns $6,860 per year through Airbnb and 65 percent of Portland hosts have used Airbnb income to help afford staying in their homes.

Most of the work for Toman is cleaning and chit-chatting. Most guests are easy, like the conventioneer who barely asked a question. The most difficult person was merely a woman who struggled with the on-street parking.

Toman, an Oregon City native, admits she has always had a thing for living rent free, in tiny or improvised spaces. Has she considered doubling her rate to maybe cover her rent in half the time, that way having more days in the comfort of her own home?

“That’s not crossed my mind. Part of why I’m involved in Airbnb is it’s an affordable way for people to build an international community. My main goal is not to capitalize on others. I really want people who don’t have much money to come and see and do the things I feel are important about Portland.”

She’s seen a lot of people use Airbnb as a launch pad for moving here. In a way, she’s a stealth urban planner.

“(The city) is growing tremendously and if we allow the Hiltons and the Hyatts to guide everyone’s visit and charge $250 a night, that leads to a certain impression of what is Portland and what it will become if they end up living here.”

Airbnb is pushing the friend-to-entrepreneurs angle. According to that Portland report, “Hosting also enables Portland residents to be more entrepreneurial and pursue nontraditional forms of work. Forty-five percent of hosts are self-employed, freelancers, or part-time workers, including 12 percent of hosts who have used Airbnb income to support themselves while launching a new business.”

That’s certainly true for Rachel Robinson, a musician, and her partner Joe Culhane, who live in Concordia. She’s a singer songwriter who moved up from Los Angeles last decade. He owns a small business making the patterned sun shades you see at events such as Pickathon. He also makes herbal remedies like cough syrup and Fire Cider under the name Maholo Yo Joe’s.

In a converted garage in the backyard, with a separate entrance, the couple has a tiny studio apartment that rents for $89 per night weekdays, $99 weekend. Plus a $60 cleaning fee. It is almost always fully booked (they had one day free this August.)

“It’s allowed me to keep working on my music, and to pay my engineer!” says Robinson, talking about her new EP available in September on CDBaby.

They originally converted the garage in 2011 for her parents to visit from Los Angeles. But before a friend turned Robinson on to Airbnb, her parents never visited. Very short-term guests stay out a lot, meaning less wear and tear on the property.

“Clearly it’s not a hotel, there’s no air conditioning, but all these places have their quirks.”

She sees the Kennedy School as the only nearby competition. That’s $115 to $145 a night. People don’t even get in their cars, they love the neighborhood. They go to Alberta Street and the cluster of restaurants at NE 30th and Killingsworth. There’s a dip in sales before the holidays and then it picks right up in January.

Robinson reckons they pocket two thirds of the $89 a night fee after taxes and expenses.

“It’s a job, and it allows us as artists to

make it work in a world that doesn’t like paying for art.”

They like that Airbnb takes care of their records and has prompt customer service for problems. And the couple are big Airbnb users themselves. In Hawaii they were driving around with the mobile app and walked into a woman’s home in 45 minutes. The fact that they have 200 reviews of themselves as hosts didn’t hurt.

“Hundreds of people have stayed here, and they’re the nicest, kindest community. After they’ve left it looks spotless,” says Robinson. “They do the dishes!”

Letting the main three bedroom house for one week would cover the mortgage. But it brings an awkward supply and demand problem.

“With the house we charge $150/175 a night, and we actually raised it to $175/200 because we got so many requests,” says Culhane.

While the guesthouse is still going strong, renting the main house is getting tiresome.

“You’re only home for a few days and you have to keep it as tidy as you’ve ever kept it,” he says ruefully. “From the outside it probably looks glamorous, but there’s the energy of taking care of people and being away from home for a long time. You can’t just go to pay the mortgage, because you’re eating out, you’re renting a hotel. We try and be minimal and go camping.”

“It’s a job, communicating with people,” says Robinson.

Culhane sums it up.

“It’s changing the landscape of our lives: what is work, what is acceptable socially and in our neighborhood.”

“A few of my friends are looking for houses and they want ones that can do Airbnb,” she adds.

Portland hosts in single family homes will need to get a permit starting on Sept. 1. Sandra Wood, a supervising planner at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, says right now the bureau is preparing application materials for hosts to get their permits, preparing the website to take payments, and trying to get people familiar with the code.

“Airbnb has 1,600 listings here, but we don’t have a crystal ball about how many hosts will come in for a permit. Some will, some might say they’re just trying it out and it’s a lot of work and just bag it.”

All that means time and money for people in a business that has been made very easy by technology. Hosts will have to allow an inspector into their house to check that bedrooms are safe for overnight guests.

“We do code enforcement on a complaint basis,” adds Wood.

Michael Kaiser-Nyman, 28, and his brother Chris moved to Portland a year ago. They rented a house itogether fro $1,700 in the Elliot neighborhood and let out one of their rooms for $90 a night or $250 a week. Nyman runs Epicodus, a vocational school for computer coders.

It began when his brother was sent to Bangladesh for a year on short notice.

“We had a very nice couple from Tel Aviv stay, they had a startup in Portland and wanted to move here. They ended up moving to San Francisco. We kept in touch, they’re friends. We stored their stuff in our basement for a while.”

They have since moved to a smaller duplex and are thinking of Airbnb-ing that too.

Nyman is skeptical of the new permitting process, and it might put him off taking people in in his new place.

“The whole thing of having to pay and have an inspection...for us it’s a last minute thing, we just go out of town. If there were an eight week turnaround and we had to pay $150, we’re not going to do it. It’s the government, you know it’s not going to happen the next day.”

He says they played around with pricing. “We had it lower than $90, then realized what hotels and other hosts were charging, and how much work it is: sheets, towels, sweep floor, make it nice...” He says the costs — cleaning, a few snacks — are trivial. Airbnb transfers the money straight into his brother’s bank account and they settle up at the end of the month.

He says their goal is financial, but they are both used to roommates.

“The people who come through have all been really nice, we’ve gone out to dinner or made dinner for them.”

By day, he’s a physician at Providence Bridgeport Immediate Care in Tualatin. By night, he’s hosting travelers in the two-bed condo in Northwest because he could no longer afford the $2,800 a month combined HOA and mortgage after breaking up with his fiancée.

Julius Wyllie found it all very easy — filling out forms, having Airbnb send a pro photographer — and enjoyable.

“Some guests just want to be left alone, some want to chat. One was a museum director from Rio, we went to see Johnny Marr (ex The Smiths) at the Aladdin. A Thai counselor studying conflict resolution stayed for a month.”

The $80 a night he gets from Airbnbers is preferable to the $30 a night he would have gotten from a normal monthly renter. His “sun break” in Ecuador was paid for by condo guests.

But his condo board sent him a letter stating there were $250 move-in and $350 move-out fees.

“They were very strongly discouraging it. It’s the singular reason I’m going to sell my condo next spring and get a small house in Goose Hollow. I’m just trying to create some income streams.”

One potential stream is Wyllie’s side project, an app called TapCare. He wants to make virtual doctor visits affordable. For $59 someone with minor ailments such as sinusitis or UTIs can ask questions and videoconference with a doctor, who can send a digital prescription to their pharmacy.

“Airbnb has been directly funding my new business,” he says.