When my partner and I decided to become homeowners, we knew exactly what kind of homeowners we wanted to be. Both diehard urbanists, we wanted to buy a duplex in a neighborhood in our ever-shrinking city of St. Louis where many serviceable multifamilies are being converted into single-family homes. We wanted to rent out the half we didn’t live in and maintain two ethically managed units for as long as we remained the owners. We had visions of opening our home to dozens of young families like ours over the years, a stalwart of affordability in a neighborhood that we knew, soon enough, was likely to scale down and appreciate up and out of the reach of most buyers, much less renters.
Our vision for homeownership was a little pragmatic, too. We’d scraped together the down payment through a combination of diligent savings from low-paying jobs and the small windfall of selling my first novel for a modest advance. Having the income of a rental wouldn’t just be consistent with our values; it’d be a necessary hedge against the stressful costs of first-time homeownership that we’d seen too many of our friends go through, as their Zillow Zestimate monthly costs proved laughably low in the face of 18th century houses that have been subjected to generations of decline, shoddy rehabs, and plain-old time. We knew we wanted to be ethical homeowners, but we also knew we needed to stay homeowners—losing a house because we couldn’t afford it simply wasn’t an option.
But we knew one more thing for sure: we would never put either of our apartments up for short-term rental on some site like Airbnb.
(Until we did. But more on that later.)
Neighbors or Crashers: Pick One.
Read most urbanist media these days—or just listen in to your neighborhood gossip—and you’ll get a certain image of the short-term rental market’s effect on our cities. You’ll read heartbreaking stories of low-income families in New Orleans being displaced by greedy landlords who realize they can get way more for their holdings if they’d just pay a cleaning service to turn down an occasional bed. Other articles will acknowledge an upstart lower-income homeowner in Barcelona who built their Airbnb business into a crucial income stream—right before they cite the hidden class of ultra-rich property holders who are using the platform as a handy tax dodge while vacating whole blocks of long-term renters. Just say the words “short term rental” to many urbanism nerds, and you’ll evoke images of neighborhoods replaced by a rotating cast of rowdy tourists who party for a night or two in an apartment owned by some oil magnate on another continent before they #vanlife back to wherever they came from. And that’s before you even mention the blows the hotel market has taken since the rise of the insta-homestay.
My partner and I are both voracious students of cities, and we care deeply about all of this stuff. Even though St. Louis, Missouri isn’t exactly hurting for vacant affordable apartments begging to be put back into productive use—the city was built for a million people, and is currently home to just over 318,000—that’s not true in every neighborhood, and the crowded ones where most Airbnbs pop up are also the ones closest to grocery stores and decent public schools. Even in our still-establishing neighborhood of Fox Park, we’d both frowned whenever we saw a triplex owner installing the telltale keypad locks on every single door and moving truckloads of IKEA furnishings into empty living rooms. Sure, Fox Park has its share of affordable vacancies, but ask around, and you’ll find that many of them are owned by slumlords who are extracting the last bit of wealth they can get out of their tenants as their buildings rapidly decline. Any real student of cities knows that the difference between a city with a wealth of affordable housing and a city with a wealth of well-managed, non-exploitative affordable housing is a vast one.
So why, we wondered, would anyone with a conscience subtract a unit from the neighborhood housing stock that could be managed by an ethical property manager and become a home to a family in need? Why would anyone subtract a neighbor in favor of a crasher?
What happens when you outgrow your house?
For a while, my partner and I stuck to our guns. We moved into the tiny, 80’s chic one-bedroom unit at the back of our duplex, and rented out the much nicer two-bedroom in the front to a group of students. We grit our teeth and lived with the many repairs our unit needed, incrementally developing as we slogged along. The tenants’ apartment was in great shape, and their rent almost covered the whole mortgage, so we sunk nearly every penny we’d previously put towards rent towards replacing the hideous, mold-infested carpet with hardwood floors, replacing the oversized AC unit that made our duct system sweat brown water through our ceilings with one that actually fit.
(Okay: we spent more than we’d spent on our last apartment’s rent on this stuff, but with the huge offset of the tenant’s rent, it was manageable.)
For a while, things were looking good, and we even managed to save up enough for a seriously great deal on a four-family in a developing neighborhood where we could offer even cheaper rent to lower income tenants.
And then….life kept happening.
First: the four-family cost way more than we thought, and the unforeseen expenses came at us from bizarre angles. A “free” city lead remediation program that paid to replace the building’s old, drafty and—oh yeah—poisonous windows ended up costing us thousands when the city wouldn’t re-hang the blinds, or re-seat the door thresholds, or anything not on their bureaucratically-stamped work order. Tenants struggled to make rent or suddenly needed to move, and our pro forma vacancy budget was way off. A water heater broke. Then another one. In under a year, it looked like we’d have to switch out a third, none of which were anticipated on the inspection. We were committed to keeping the rents low, but we were starting to understand, first-hand, why it’s so damn hard to keep housing affordable, even in a cheap building with no frills.
And not all of our life-happenings were financial. Simply put, we were outgrowing our tiny little back-of-the-duplex apartment. As a 28-year-old first-time home buyer, I was thrilled to have a couch I could offer to friends who needed to crash on cross-country drives; as 32-year-old, I really wanted to be able to offer them a bed. I wanted to have dinner parties instead of meeting friends at bars, and our micro-living room had space for a café table and no more. Also, I’d gotten this weird, wonderful work-from-home job for a little non-profit in Minnesota—it’s called Strong Towns, have you heard of it?—and having no place to set up a laptop besides that café table, my bed and my couch was getting old.
And one member of our family was literally outgrowing our space.
Yes, friends, sometimes, your life decisions are very much motivated by a 25-pound puppy who quickly metamorphoses into a 70-pound oaf. (Did I mention that we also have two cats and this apartment had no way to install a bedroom door to separate our beasts? Yeah.)
My partner and I sat down and started to have a hard conversation. We needed space, and a just little more cashflow each month. We weren’t getting that in our current apartment. Coincidentally, the tenants in our (big, glorious) front unit (with two bathrooms! And space for a dining table! We yearned!) had decided to move in with their long-term girlfriends, so that unit would become available soon. But while moving in there would solve our space problem, it would make our money problem worse. We’d done a lot of work on the tiny rear unit—it now looked pretty much like an apartment from the current decade, and we’d replaced basically all of the major systems—but this is St. Louis, and there’s no way we could get more in monthly rent on a one bedroom with a galley kitchen and a tiny living room than we could get on a two bedroom/two bath in the same building, I don’t care how many cute brass fixtures you add in the bathroom.
We considered every possible combination of places we could move and properties we could sell. We ran spreadsheet after spreadsheet, negotiated and re-negotiated our non-negotiables. Without kicking a tenant out of our four-family (which would have been downright cruel in these particular circumstances—our only month-to-month tenant was a mom of four), or selling our duplex and moving into another (insanely disruptive and maybe impossible to do anyway; we’d gotten a great deal on this building for this neighborhood, and built deep friendships within a few blocks that we didn’t want to give up), or selling the duplex and switching to a single family (the exact opposite of what we wanted to do when we became homeowners!), things were looking bleak. And all because we needed a place with a second bedroom we could shut our cats inside when our dog got too rowdy, a couple hundred extra dollars of financial cushion a month, and zero time in either of our schedules to add another job.
But here’s the thing: remember that new job I’d gotten, the one with internet media start-up that writes about cities and sends me to Disneyland for a staff retreat once a year and all of my friends think is fake because it sounds too good to be true? It had started to grow the way I think about short-term rentals, too. And that growth in my thinking led us to doing something I never thought I’d do.