Hosting During a Pandemic??

As the Coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic spread out across the globe, most all Airbnb hosts found themselves heavily impacted, with many cancelled reservations, and empty properties.  This article is not directed at those Airbnb hosts or other short term rental operators for whom their income from short term or related property rentals is “extra” or discretionary income, but rather those for whom this is essential if not primary income.

One of the biggest and most pernicious and ugly problems in the host community, and one of the most ubiquitous, is hosts who judge other hosts, because the others aren’t doing their business the way these hosts think they should be.  I’m not referring to hosts who have concerns about the mega-hosts who run many dozens if not hundreds of properties via rental arbitrage, as this model quite arguably isn’t actually “hosting”, it is more properly termed a large vacation rental business/corporation.  Rather I’m referring to hosts who can’t seem to let other hosts set their own thermostat, write their own house rules, decide their pet policies, or do their own type of screening, without feeling a need to lecture to them.

So let’s cut to the quick here: if you can’t stop yourself from judging other hosts and insisting that they run their business the way you say they should, then stop right here and do not read further.  Because it’s quite likely that if you can’t leave others to run their business as they see fit in normal times, you’ll have an exceptionally difficult time allowing them that right in a pandemic.

What is the plan forward from here? I want to explore a number of approaches to this question.

These are some of the options hosts are taking now, and I’ll talk a little about each
(1) Keep my listing/s empty and hunker down, wait this out, until it’s safe to start up business again.
(2) Rent out my listing/s to essential workers, travel nurses, or others with situations that requires them to be in the area in temporary housing.
(3) Shift to taking long term renters.
(4) Take short term rentals as they come in, if my state/region allows this.

With each of these options, hosts may be able to draw unemployment income and/or obtain pandemic loans to ride them through these difficult times.

First Option: Keep Listing Empty, Wait it Out

As to the first option, that of keeping your listing empty and waiting it out.  This is arguably the most conservative and safe approach, but it’s also the most simple-minded and approach in one key way.  We can see this when we begin asking, what does it really entail?  What this approach implies is far more daunting than might be seen at first glance.  In fact, in many cases this approach may ultimately prove quite impossible.  The reason for this is that the pandemic and the virus don’t simply cease to exist at the expiration of your government’s shelter-in-place order.  Unless you happen to live and host in one of the rare nations like New Zealand that either has had virtually no virus intrusion, or has taken very strong measures from day one of the first virus case, involving contact tracing and required quarantine, so that the virus can be declared “stamped out completely”, there will be plenty of virus still around when shelter in place orders are ended.

Case in point is the United States, with more virus cases than any other nation, closing on 1,200,000 confirmed cases, and more in one city alone — New York City — than in any other nation in the world.  If the shelter in place orders all expire at the end of May, this means that from the time guests first began a flurry of cancellations, hosts would have gone 2.5 months with no business, no income.  If the shelter in place orders expired one month later, at the end of June, hosts following this approach of keeping their listing empty, would have gone 3.5 months with no guests and no income.   The key question here, is how long can hosts go with no income whatsoever from their rental property.  Again, this article is directed to those hosts for whom their rental property income is essential if not their primary income, so please jump right off this page and get lost  if you are starting to feel a need to lecture hosts that they should never run a short term rental business as a primary business, but only as a “hobby.”  If you can be a hobbyist with your rental property, you come from a place of relative privilege and it’s wholly inappropriate for you to lecture to others in a less privileged situation.

There is a difference between what we have to endure, versus what we choose to burden ourselves with in the name of safety.  Hosts who are under a government mandated shelter in place order that requires they close their short term rental during this time, have no choice but to stay empty.  Yet as I’m beginning to suggest, it would be misguided to think that there is a black and white difference between what one can safely do during a shelter in place order, and in the days and weeks subsequent to the expiration of that order.

Whenever a shelter in place order expires, say at the end of May or the end of June, that still leaves us with thousands if not millions of active cases of coronavirus across the US.  Any one of those cases, has just as much chance of spreading the virus, as did the very first case of Coronavirus that arrived in the US early in the year, or possibly even in December of 2019.  Just because the shelter in place order has ended, does not mean that any prospective guest who would like to stay at your Airbnb listing,  isn’t a carrier of the virus.  Any guest could be a virus carrier this week, next week, next month, or 6 months from now, a year from now.  Until we develop widespread testing, there’s no way to ascertain who is and who is not a carrier, for many are asymptomatic, and until we develop a vaccine, there’s no way to be completely safe from carriers of the virus.

So the question then becomes: not whether a host can weather 2.5 months or 3.5 months of “lockdown” and no business during shelter in place orders, but whether that host can go 6 months, or a year or 18 months, with no income from their rental property, until the point where there is either widespread routine testing and/or a vaccine.  And I know very few people indeed who could confidently and contentedly say that they can afford to go 12 to 18 months with no income from their rental property.

So this is the major shortcoming of the “wait it out” approach: the fact that to be completely safe, you’ll need to wait it out not for 2 or 3 months, but more likely for a year or more.

Second Option: Rent to Essential Workers, Travel Nurses

This option is in my view more workable than the first, but it probably will not work for those renting out a room in the home they themselves live in, because hosting front-line workers or essential workers would be the position of greatest risk to in-home hosts.
These workers are much more likely than others to become infected and spread the virus, because of their greater exposure, particularly the case with medical workers.  For instance, I rent out rooms in my home, and had a FEMA worker inquire about staying at my house for a few months, but I could not entertain this option because this worker would at times possibly be in close contact with some persons infected with the virus, and even with PPE, this made this kind of worker a much greater risk to my home than most others.

On the other hand, this approach could work well for those renting out entire units, (which is where I think FEMA workers and travel nurses should be seeking to stay, not in rooms in hosts’ homes) particularly if the essential worker wants to rent for a longish stay, which then means that it’s more do-able to leave the space vacant for 72 hrs after they depart, in order to safely enter it to clean it for the next occupant.

Third Option: Shift to Taking Long Term Renters

Many hosts who normally do short term rentals, may want to shift to taking a longer term renter at this time.  This is difficult for hosts who got into short term renting precisely because doing long term rentals didn’t work for them or involved too many problems.  So to be bounced back into that problematic type of business is painful.  However, when you take stock of what your losses will be if you can’t fill your property, or get adequate unemployment income or a pandemic loan to help you during this time, this might be the route that many hosts need to go.  See my article on screening renters to try to avoid mistakes and taking in the wrong type of person.  Taking in a long term renter is most fraught with potential problems for hosts renting out entire units in areas that have rent control and eviction control, but is complicated for most all of us now due to all the “eviction moratoriums” that are being put in place around the nation and the world.  It could happen that you take in a renter who pays the first month’s rent, but then declares they have no job or income now and can’t pay any more, and isn’t willing to move out, either.  But ironically, having a nonpaying renter during the pandemic in some ways is less of a problem than having the same in normal times.  To look at the positive side:  in a time when it’s difficult to get any renters at all, carrying a nonpaying renter actually is less “costly” for property owners now than it would be during boom times.

For both long term and short term renters, a host or property owner would do well to screen these renters in terms of whether they are less likely or more likely to have been exposed to the virus.  I’ll explain more about that below.

Fourth Option:  Take Short Term Rentals as they come in

It may seem that there are no short term rentals happening now.  That isn’t actually the case.  It depends where one is.  Some hosts in more rural, remote areas are actually reporting that their business is booming, as people are fleeing urban centers now (though sometimes violating shelter in place orders as they do so) seek a rural area to stay in for a month or two, where they feel safer.
Also, not all parts of the nation have banned short term rentals.  As well, some hosts are taking short term rental bookings even though strictly speaking the shelter in place policies dont’ allow these in their area at the present time.  Most regions which are prohibiting short term rentals, still do allow such rentals for “essential workers”, which leaves one to wonder who is going to police what kind of work your guest is, or isn’t doing.
In some areas, Airbnb itself has blocked calendars on hosts’ listings, preventing them from taking reservations at this time, due to the dangers created by the pandemic. For instance, this article reports that Airbnb blocked calendars of most all hosts in the UK for this reason.  https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/emergencies-airbnb-blocks-majority-uk-bookings-200409073140490.html
This article does mention that “essential stays” will still be allowed, but I can’t see how an essential stay can be booked on a calendar that has been intentionally blocked.

This approach of taking short term rentals as they come in, and if they seem to be safe, will be one that hosts just have to experiment with and see if they get enough inquiries and if it feels sufficiently safe to them.  Particularly if they rent out an entire place listing, they are safer than renting a room in their own home, and even more so if they can keep 72 hrs between each reservation, thus assuring time for the virus to dissipate in the air and be cleaned off surfaces with disinfectant.

Though the USA has more virus cases than any other nation in the world, the distribution through the nation is not even, and so hosts in areas which are less impacted might rightly feel safer in taking in guests, than those from more heavily impacted areas.  For instance, California as a whole has had 52x fewer deaths from coronavirus,  than New York City, and the SF Bay area has had 85x fewer deaths than NYC area.  California has a population of 37 million and has had 2000 deaths,  the SF Bay Area has a population of 7.7 million and has had 280 deaths, whereas New York City has a population of 8.5 million and has had 24,000 deaths.  This makes it much riskier to take in guests in NYC, or take guests FROM the NYC area, than to take in guests in California generally. And some areas of California, like Modoc county, have ZERO cases of the virus in their region.  This doesn’t mean no cases will ever arrive there, but it does present a comparatively safer area.  All of which is just to point to the fact that the virus situation differs from region to region across the nation, and hosts should be able to decide for themselves what they think is sufficiently safe for their own business.

On that note, let’s talk about screening prospective renters in terms of the virus risk they may introduce into your home.  This should be something all hosts consider, especially if they are bringing renters into their own home in which they live to share common spaces.  If you are renting an entire place, this may not be a concern of yours, particularly if you can leave several days’ (at least 3 days) space between reservations to allow any virus on surfaces to die or be cleaned away.

One way of screening such renters would be on the basis of where they are from and/or where they have recently traveled.  Are they from a virus hot-spot such as New York City, Italy or Spain? In such a case you might err on the side of caution by declining them.  What work do they do, in what kind of context? People in work that puts them in hospitals, or in medical care, or in nursing homes, or in homeless shelters, or in prisons, in any other congregate living facility, or in other work with populations who have a higher risk of infection, you may want to avoid hosting if you rent rooms in your home.  Those who can do their work remotely from your home pose the least risk, those who work in grocery stores or other places such as banks where they come into contact with others may pose an intermediate risk.  Also, assess whether you feel confident that the prospective guest would take the shelter in place rules seriously and would wear a mask outside, stay 6 ft away from others, avoid large gatherings or visits with friends, etc.

Regardless what approach hosts take, it would be prudent to draft a set of rules for guests about what you expect of them in order to keep your house and property safe from the virus during this time.  Such as that they follow shelter in place rules and wear masks when out, and go out only to conduct essential business.  Masks on

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