Lauren and Rob, who moved to New York City to make it in showbiz, rent a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that costs $2,250 per month. Lacking a regular paycheck, the two performers make ends meet by hawking short-term stays on their living-room couch for $65 a night. Travelers find them through Airbnb, a popular online service that connects residents who want to pick up some extra cash from out-of-towners who are looking for a cheaper alternative to a traditional hotel.
“On average, we cover half our rent,” says Lauren, who asked that we not reveal her last name because of the legal issues surrounding Airbnb rentals. “And so it takes away the worry.”
Airbnb, the most popular short-term rental site, is exploding in popularity, with a reported five-fold increase in its bookings in one year. The site has 200,000 listings available in 192 countries. Customers can stay in an igloo in Greenland, a Tipi in Denmark, or a tree house above San Francisco Bay. In New York City, where the average hotel room runs $350 per night, tourists can pay as little as $10 to stay on a worn couch.
Despite its rapid growth, this sort of peer-to-peer accommodation network still makes up a fraction of the U.S. lodging industry. There are 45,000 Airbnb domestic listings, which is less than 1 percent of the size of the U.S. hotel business, with its 4.9 million guest rooms.
But Airbnb and similar services have made enough of an impact to draw powerful enemies. These range from city officials trying to maximize lucrative hotel taxes to a hospitality industry fearful of competition to tenants-rights advocates who think the short-termers diss traditional renters.