Airbnb: Billion-Dollar Room Rental Marketplace

A single website has changed the face of the global tourism industry.

Since 2008, Airbnb has booked more than 20 million travelers in places from Argentina to Zanzibar.

There are hundreds of Airbnb hosts in Connecticut, including nine in the town of West Hartford.

This summer, Carol Davis posted a listing on Airbnb offering to host people at her three-story home. She wasn't sure there was a market for travelers to Hartford, but to her surprise, dozens have been interested in her third-floor suite.

She said their reasons for visiting the Capital City are varied and include meetings, weddings and road races.

Davis said she's booked dozens of guests since July, including three in just the past week. The mother of two said she's never had a negative interaction with any of them.

About a mile up the road, another Airbnb home has had a steady stream of guests as well, but neighbor Ann Ahern is concerned.

"Most of them were nightly, you know, one car would leave, there'd be a gap and another car would come," said Ahern. "You just don't know who's out there, who's doing what, who's watching you."

Early this fall, the longtime resident started asking questions about the overnight rentals at town hall.

West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka said that until Ahern reached out, Airbnb wasn't even on the town's radar. Town officials did some research and found the local zoning regulations are clear.

"The town code does not allow a rental in a residential area for less than 30 days," said Slifka.

He said the town typically takes a gentle approach to zoning violations. Last month, the town sent a letter to the Airbnb host in Ann Ahern's neighborhood to inform her of the violation.

The Troubleshooters spoke with the homeowner who received the letter. She said that after meeting with the local zoning officer, she agreed to comply with the regulations.

But every Connecticut town is a bit different.

Mary Beth Joyce lists her waterfront home in Westbrook on Airbnb. Her town has no restrictions on short-term rentals, so Joyce has shared her home with people from all over the world. She said hosting Airbnb guests is more about connecting with people than making money.

"It really has been fascinating. I've been able to interact with people I never would've met any other way," said Joyce.

Like Westbrook, most shoreline communities allow short-term, Airbnb-type rentals. In New Haven, the city ordinance restricts paid home stays lasting less than a week.

"Any person occupying such room or rooms and paying such compensation without prearrangement or for less than a week at a time shall be classed for purposes of this ordinance not as a roomer, boarder or lodger, but as a guest of a commercial lodging establishment," the ordinance reads.

As far as revenue is concerned, Airbnb takes a small fee and sends each host a 1099 tax form at the end of every year.

In Connecticut, local towns have no financial stake in these Airbnb stays, but in large cities across the U.S., big dollars are at stake.

In cities like San Francisco and New York, the Airbnb boom has created a revenue hole. The Big Apple is losing out on its 17 percent hotel tax when tourists choose an Airbnb listing over a hotel, but the company has struck a deal with San Francisco and is now collecting the city's 14 percent hotel tax as part of the transaction.

Airbnb is having an impact on Connecticut's lodging industry, according to Jeff Muthersbaugh, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Haddam and serves as chairman of the Connecticut B&B Association.

"I love competition. I'm not trying to prevent anyone from competing with me; that's not the idea here. I want to compete on a level playing field," said Muthersbaugh.

He points out that Connecticut's hotels, motels and B&Bs have to meet building codes and maintain proper insurance. They also collect millions every year for the state in the form of the 15 percent lodging tax. Muthersbaugh believes the fiscal inequity can only be resolved in Hartford.

"You really need the legislature to take this on and say, 'This is how we're going to tax these types of organizations,'" explained Muthersbaugh.

On the quality of life side of the ledger, West Hartford is taking a wait-and-see attitude on Airbnb.

"Right now, if it's 8-10 properties and we're not hearing from anyone, other than the one incident we have, it seems like a small thing and we're going to keep an eye on it," said Slifka.

Davis said her neighbors know she's renting her third floor and are fully on board.

"The neighbors I've talked to about it all think it's great. I've had no negative reaction about it," Davis said.

Any change in zoning regulations to allow Airbnb-type rentals would require a public hearing, something Ahern would welcome on this sticky neighborhood issue.

"I think the town needs to take a good long, hard look at this. I'm not going to say it's good or bad, I just don't like the way it's running right now in my neighborhood," she explained.

As for the trustworthiness of Airbnb guests, the company sent us a statement that reads in part:

"We provide tools so that our hosts can review and research their guests before they accept a reservation. You can read a person's profile, look for their reviews, see if you have Facebook friends in common, and even check to see if they've verified their driver's license or passport."

Airbnb also provides what they call the "Million Dollar Host Guarantee" to give peace of mind that if something does happen, the host is covered.

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