It wasn’t the hairdryer that bothered me — I admired my host’s clever way of hiding her hairstyling equipment behind the mirror slanted against the bathroom wall. It wasn’t the children’s artwork strewn all over the walls.
It was the tax returns she left so trustingly on the desk in her bedroom.
That tax return, and all its uncomfortable, undeniable humanness — that’s why I’m scared to use Airbnb.
The alternative lodging startup is now 6 years old. It has served more than 25 million guests in more than 34,000 cities. And its valuation has soared to upward of $13 billion at last tally. (For the service to have only a handful of squatters, lawsuits, and criminals during all of this isn’t a bad track record.)
So why am I avoiding it for my upcoming spring break vacation with my mom in Paris? Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned. On my past several trips, I’ve stayed in hotels. But I do love startups. I love innovation. And I really love a good bargain.
Unfortunately, I don’t always love dealing with humans.
I was a fairly early adopter of Airbnb. The hair dryer and tax returns — that was in a place we rented in New York in 2011. I needed a place to stay for a week with my two kids, and I’d heard of Airbnb, the proverbial “cool new startup.” Its search filters worked better than vacation rentals site VRBO, and the slick website felt less threatening than Craigslist. Before I knew it, I’d zeroed in on a 2-bedroom apartment in Chelsea with what looked like a perfect baby’s room. It was slightly annoying that I couldn’t verify any details about the place before paying, especially when the host casually mentioned that the pictures were out of date and the crib was gone — after she’d accepted my request and my money was committed. (I didn’t understand at the time that Airbnb works like that.) But the company’s customer support mediated that little snafu, and the host agreed to provide a portable crib for my stay.
None of that, however, prepared me for all the … personal stuff that the transaction would involve. When we showed up, the apartment was fabulous. But our host casually mentioned, “Oh, if any of my neighbors ask, can you say you’re my friends from out of town? Because I’m not sure my lease technically allows me to do this.”
My husband looked at me, wondering what I had gotten us into.
The kid’s room, it’s true, was great, and my host had this amazing shabby-chic design sense. She’d decorated her daughter’s room with children’s art that looked straight out of a Real Simple spread. I wondered if she was a magazine editor, a designer at some fancy firm, or an artist.
But we couldn’t help but wonder: Where was the little girl sleeping? Her mom had assured us they were at their “country house upstate.” But our New York friends, most of whom hadn’t yet heard of this strange new site called Airbnb, weren’t convinced: “They’re totally down the street, crashing in a friend’s living room,” one scoffed. I worried about this little girl, sleeping on a cot in a corner of some kindly neighbor’s living room while our cash was helping her single mom make ends meet.
When the second leg of our journey didn’t come together, we tried to extend our stay by a few days. The tone of my host’s voice unnerved me as she told me it absolutely wasn’t possible. “I really have to get my daughter home,” she said, sounding just this side of desperate.
One point for the couch-surfing-at-a-friend’s theory. The Hudson Valley country house started to feel impossibly far away.
The sense that I was benefitting from someone’s desperation made my stomach hurt.
We moved to a hotel for our final few days. There was something luxurious and revelatory about the anonymity and comfort of having a staff paid to literally take care of our dirty laundry.
I like the idea of the sharing economy. I love its efficiency, its maximizing of resources. I like the notion that people can sell their extra whatever to help me out while I help their bank account in return. This hilarious send-up captures this, while channeling a lot of the hostility that surrounds these companies. I understand both sides. Uber, Airbnb, and companies like them have created competition without regulation, and they need to evolve so their employees can get workplace protections and customers can feel safe using the services. But Uber’s not the only company skirting the benefits question with independent contractors, and Airbnb is basically facilitating the long-standing art of the sublet.
If we want to get outraged about exploitation, maybe we can start with the illegal immigrants and migrant workers who do the dirtiest work in our economy, all while living in the shadows. That’s a crime and a tragedy, one that seriously predates the Internet era. You might even say, with one sweeping cliche, that exploitation is what our country was built on. It isn’t pretty, but it’s the way we do things. I hope we’ll channel the outrage to make things better for all workers, sharing economy or not.
Fundamentally, I’m happy that Airbnb enabled my host to make a couple thousand bucks to help pay her taxes. (We never peeked in the folder, by the way. I even emailed her after we were gone, saying she might want to put that stuff away in the future.) And as Airbnb has grown in popularity, I’ve now met people who genuinely enjoy getting to know their hosts, and who’ll stay in rooms within inhabited apartments, sharing common areas, and even (gasp!) bathrooms.
And based on my recent browsing of the website — it’s really ballooned since 2011 — I see you can now use it to rent apartments that are managed through good old property-management companies, which look just impersonal enough to serve as homier-than-average hotels, with a kitchen and a washing machine. So maybe I’ll give Airbnb another shot.
I just hope I don’t run into my Parisian landlady as she’s scuttling away with a baguette sticking out of her Longchamp travel tote. I’m not ready to worry about where she’ll be spending her nights.