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The Problem with Airbnbs: Tackling the Issue of Short-Term Rentals

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Show Notes

Take out the trash.

Strip the sheets from the bed and put them in the washing machine.

Wash and put away the dishes.

Don’t forget to wipe down the counters in the kitchen and the bathroom.

That might sound like a list of chores your mom expected you to do before she got home from work, but it’s actually an example of tasks that people have been asked to complete before checking out of a short-term rental. If you’ve stayed in an Airbnb or a VRBO or the like, you’ve probably done something similar.

On this week’s episode, we’re talking all about the issues that the short-term rental industry is facing—how Airbnbs and VRBOs are perceived, the drawbacks to staying in one, and why people in Colorado mountain towns are trying to cut down on the short-term rentals in their neighborhoods. Emma chats with the University of Denver's Cheri Young about the evolution of short-term rentals and common complaints about the industry. We’re also joined by Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins, who lends a bird’s-eye view of the battle over short-term rentals in Colorado mountain towns.

Cheri Young is an Associate Professor in the Knoebel School of Hospitality Management in the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.  A passionate, talented designer of engaging learning environments through the use of community-engaged service learning, Dr. Young’s teaching has been recognized by the U.S. State Department and the International Council for Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education. While her primary teaching areas include organizational behavior, labor relations, and human resources, her life’s purpose is to help others realize their highest potential.

Jason Blevins is co-founder of and reporter for The Colorado Sun. He lives in Eagle, CO, and covers everything from the Western slope and public lands to the outdoors, the ski industry, mountain business and housing.

More Information:

Telluride council among first to consider easing short-term rental restrictionsby Jason Blevins

Colorado’s mountain town homeowners are tired of being cast as villains in the fight over short-term rentals by Jason Blevins

DataUSA: Breckenridge, CO Breckenridge, CO

A look at who rents and who owns in the U.S.” from Pew Research

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Take out the trash.

Strip the sheets from the bed and put them in the washing machine.

Wash and put away the dishes.

Don’t forget to wipe down the counters in the kitchen and the bathroom.

That might sound like a list of chores your mom expected you to do before she got home from work, but it’s actually an example of tasks that people have been asked to complete before checking out of a short-term rental. If you’ve stayed in an Airbnb or a V-r-b-o or the like, you’ve probably done something similar.

On this week’s episode, we’re talking all about the issues that the short-term rental industry is facing—how Airbnbs and V-r-b-os are perceived, the drawbacks to staying in one, and why people in Colorado mountain towns are trying to cut down on the short-term rentals in their neighborhoods.

Though far from the first short-term rental company, when we think of vacation rentals, we think of Airbnb. The company was founded in 2007 by two guys who wanted to, quote, “make a few bucks” by allowing people to rent an air mattress and stay in their apartment for a few nights, and it blew up from there.

Airbnb-ing became the preferred method of vacationing for millennials in the mid-2010s, a way for young people to lean into the experience of travel rather than just staying in a cheap hotel with few amenities and zero local charm. There was just something unique and different about staying in someone’s home, living like a local and gaining access to neighborhoods that you wouldn’t see from the window of a Holiday Inn.

Cheri Young, an associate professor with the University of Denver’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management, says the Airbnb craze was driven by this promise of authenticity—and a cheap price tag, as compared to hotels.

Cheri Young (01:43):

Also the notion that there were cooking facilities so the idea that you didn't have to eat every meal, you know, outside of your lodging that you could, you know, bring in bagels or you know, have a bowl of cereal or something like that was attractive, as well as for groups like families, groups of friends getting together. They could all be under one roof, so multiple bedrooms with a shared living space essentially. And that's very hard to do in a hotel.

And so for Airbnb: accommodate groups, cooking facilities, lower price, and that authentic experience, those four characteristics really drove its popularity.

Emma Atkinson (2:30)

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. With short-term rentals, Young says, you lose the dependability—the idea that everything will be as it’s supposed to be—that you get with hotels.

Cheri Young (02:39):

You know, if I go stay in Austin at Jake's cabin, the chances are, I don't know anybody who has stayed at Jake's cabin, so I do have to go and look at reviews and trust that, but there's just a lack of consistency.

So that's one of the disadvantages. Another disadvantage for some travelers is they like to have workout facilities, particularly people that travel a lot. They want to be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle. And traditionally, that's been really difficult in the past, hotel gyms work terrible, you know, these little tiny nooks or corners in a hotel with a bunch of like rusty old equipment. And now hotels have realized this is a real competitive advantage for them. And so they've gone, you know, they've gone deep into their fitness facilities and really upping their game there because they realize it's something that individual Airbnb hosts typically can't compete on.

Emma Atkinson (03:43):

I remember one time I was staying with friends at a Vrbo cabin in the Smoky Mountains, and we got there, and the place was filthy: dirty sheets and towels, mold in the dishwasher, dirty dishes in the sink. It was awful, and we had a hard time getting in touch with the host to solve the issue.

And I’m not the only one who’s had experiences like this.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 04:01):

In the past few years, we've been seeing a lot of talk, mostly on social media, about more technical disadvantages, material disadvantages, particularly the price of cleaning fees, and other ‘hidden’ fees that Airbnb and other short-term rental companies have included. I just read a piece in The Atlantic this morning, where this woman said—"It was after a wedding, and my boyfriend and I were at our Airbnb and we were cleaning the kitchen. And our friends at a hotel were enjoying the hot tub. And we said to ourselves, ‘What are we doing? And why are we paying for our cleaning fee?’”

Cheri Young (04:42):

It’s so funny, because I just stayed at an Airbnb with my sister in Minneapolis and I forget what we had to do… Oh, we had to pull the sheets off the bed. And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? Really? You cannot find a cleaning crew that knows how to pull the sheets off the bed?’

I didn't know that, until I gotten to the unit, that I was expected them pull the sheets off the bed, take out the trash, separate the recyclables from the compost from this, and I thought, ‘That's really interesting.’

So it's another part of that lack of consistency, you know, you don't have to do that in some Airbnb units, others you do. But some would say, ‘Hey, that's part of the Airbnb experience, that you don't know what you're gonna get.’ So that's the downside. But the upside is, you might get this gem of a place that you stay at an Airbnb that nobody else has discovered, or few people have stayed at. But yeah, the rise of fees? I'm thinking that there's going to be a consumer backlash.

Emma Atkinson (05:51):

Then, of course, you have the other side of the coin when it comes to Airbnb horror stories: tales of guests who trash the place or throw all-night ragers and piss off the neighbors. And, as we all know, there is no wrath like a neighbor scorned.

But for people who are against the rise of short-term rentals—especially in traditionally single-family areas—the issue is about more than just trying to cut back on late-night noise.

I wanted to know: Are short-term rentals eroding neighborhood culture? Young says she can see how they might be.

Cheri Young (06:20):

It's very interesting, because I do enjoy staying in Airbnbs, as you know. As I said, the most recent one being in Minneapolis. And it was it was an interesting phenomenon. Because I was in a unit and it was upstairs in the little house, they had a downstairs unit, and they had an upstairs unit. And I was upstairs and I was standing on the little balcony, and I was looking into the neighbor's yard and their kids were there. And I thought what do these people think of this unit? Like how does it make them feel? And I felt a little bad about it. It's the first time that I've felt bad about staying in the Airbnb unit, because I've never, I don't think I've ever seen neighbors that way, the way I did in Minneapolis. It's just the way the neighborhood is structured. Versus I've stayed in Airbnb units where I'm in a condo tower, and I don't see anybody and it really doesn't feel any different than staying in the hotel.

Emma Atkinson (07:18):

I mean, just imagine: You’ve just moved into a new home. Maybe you have a family. You’re excited to meet your neighbors and begin integrating yourself into the fabric of the community. But you quickly realize that next door, you’ve got a new neighbor every week. They don’t stop to say hi and they certainly don’t bring you brownies or let you borrow a cup of sugar.

How is this affecting our communities as a whole?

The Airbnb story is even more complex just west of Denver in in Colorado’s most popular tourist destinations like Breckenridge, Vail, or Aspen. In these communities, social media and local newspapers and filled with debates about short-term rentals and how they support or erode the local economy. To learn more, I turned to Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins, who’s had a front-row seat to the clash between tourist-heavy mountain towns and short-term rental owners.

Jason Blevins (08:06):

Yeah, so for years and years, ironically, short term rentals were born in Summit County, Breckenridge, a fellow out there decided he wanted to rent this condo and started kind of selling, you know, weekends and whatnot. Next thing you know, he's founded VRBO. So they've been around for probably 15, 20 years and kind of grappled with them over the past decade or so, trying to figure out, ‘Hey, we should tax these, let’s make sure we got lodging taxes collected, let's create rules about trash and parking and noise,’ and things like that. And yeah, it's been sort of a steadily growing, steadily increasing regulation around what has been a pretty important component of tourism economies in the high country.

Emma Atkinson (08:48):

Blevins mentions that with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people wanted to escape cities with high population densities—and high case counts—and looked to the mountains as a place to do that. This had a huge impact on housing prices. In many Colorado mountain towns, housing prices as much as doubled from 2019 to 2021.

Jason Blevins (09:08):

And all of a sudden, locals could not afford to live in these communities. People were buying these houses, maybe they were moving in, maybe they were saying hey, ‘I'm not going to rent them out the locals anymore.’ Whatever happened, there's been a housing crisis in the high country. And that has caused local leaders to say, ‘Hey, what can we do to mitigate and more closely regulate short term rental properties in the high country? What can we do in our town? Can we limit this number? Can we tax them? Can we cap them? How can we slow the STR roll, so that we can have time to catch our breath and you know, maybe build some housing, maybe convert some housing? Maybe short-term rental people will say it is too much of a hassle—let's go back to renting to locals.’

So there's been a whole laboratory of experiments across the high country in the past two years, with all these different communities trying just a really broad spectrum of strategies for how they can better regulate short term rentals and, hopefully, find a way to ease the housing crisis.

Emma Atkinson (10:16):

Okay, let’s take a look at the numbers. The median household income in Breckenridge, Colorado is about 80 thousand dollars a year. The median home price? 1.4 million dollars. We’ll list the sources on those numbers in the show notes.

Jason Blevins (10:30):

There's no way a person working in these communities can afford a home, and that is the crux of the issue; and sort of the lowest hanging fruit and the easiest lever to pull has been short-term rental regulation and short-term rental rules and caps and excise taxes and regulatory fees and all these different ways to sort of slow down short-term rentals. Maybe squeeze them for a little more money, maybe create some housing for locals, maybe get more money for housing for locals; so, a wide spectrum of approaches, but that's sort of the broad overview of what's been going on for the past couple of years.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 11:09):

let's talk Summit County. What are, specifically, the regulations that they're trying to put in place?

Jason Blevins (11:14):

Okay, so Summit County has short-term rental regulations for unincorporated part of the county that's different than, obviously, Frisco, Silverthorne, Breckenridge. They have imposed these rules that [are] basically a limit of 135 rental nights per year for owners. They have different zones, these neighborhood zones, they've really cracked down on short term rentals, they have a cap on how many times you can rent. In the fall of ’21, they imposed 135 rental nights, which seems like a lot. And then they cut that, the latest one, to 35 bookings a year in these neighborhood zones. And they differentiate between residential owners and non-residential owners, so there's some varying levels of restrictions and zoning.

Emma Atkinson (12:07):

Blevins says that people in these mountain communities overwhelmingly vote in favor of restricting and regulating short-term rentals. These regulations run the gamut from elevated taxes, one-time licensing fees, per-bedroom fees and more.

Jason Blevins (12:20):

They’ve got a ‘lease to locals’ program in Steamboat that pays owners of short term rentals, you know, several thousand dollars—$10,000, $12,000, if they just convert their properties from short-term rental to local workers and sign year-long leases with local workers, and they'll give you 12,000 bucks. That's on top of your lease. So you know, there's all these different programs, like I said, sort of a laboratory of experiments from Steamboat to Crested Butte to Telluride to Aspen, Breckenridge, all over, Winter Park. So it's been fascinating to watch.

But after a couple of years, we're starting to see kind of results coming in and seeing how this is all shaken out, seeing how the rental regulations have constricted or controlled—how has it contributed to housing, has it had any effect on housing? Has it hurt the tourism economy? Has taxing, you know, lodging, tax revenue fallen or anything like that? So you're starting to see, kind of right now, these numbers are rolling in and communities are saying, ‘Hey, it's interesting, we're getting a lot of money,’ or maybe, ‘We're over-taxing too much, maybe we should loosen up the caps of the regulations.’

Emma Atkinson (13:34):

Just recently, Blevins reported a story that revealed that the Telluride Town Council is likely to end a cap and moratorium on short-term rental licenses in the area.

Telluride councilwoman Adrienne Christy said, quote, “The only way we are going to solve this problem is to build affordable housing and in order to do that we need to make money,” end quote.

It’ll be a popular move among short-term rental owners in the area—and could serve as a bellwether for Colorado mountain towns’ approach to the issue.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 14:01):

So one of the stories I read that you did kind of looked at it from the other perspective, right, from the perspective of people whose livelihoods depend on the short-term rentals. I think, often, when people think about short-term rentals in a negative sense, they're thinking about big corporations who come up into towns and just buy up all these homes that would otherwise be affordable, right, and then rent them out on Airbnb, VRBO, et cetera.

But some of the people you talk to just have one home that they rent out from from time to time, and rely on that to make upgrades to the home or what have you, so tell me a little bit about those people.

Jason Blevins (14:39):

So, in the past, I guess six months or so, we're starting to see kind of this groundswell of property owners, people in mountain towns who—maybe they have a second home, maybe they're locals, and they rent out a home they live in, and then they go camping, and they rent it out. Or, you know, maybe they're Front Rangers with the second home or working folks who say, ‘The only way we're gonna be able to afford a home out up here is if we rent it out on Christmas, and, you know, president's weekend on stuff and rent it to vacationing skiers.’

And that's kind of been an important part of the mountain town economy. There hasn't been a whole lot of hotel building in these mountain communities while their tourism economies are growing. These visitors obviously need a place to sleep, to headquarter. So homeowners have provided homes and sort of like set a growing trend. But we're starting to see these property owners saying, ‘Wow, these regulations are making it very difficult for me to generate revenue, pay my mortgage, you know, afford these homes.’

In general, we haven't seen major hedge fund-type investment in these mountain communities, but these are property owners that you know, maybe working folks from Front Range, you know, maybe are middle class, not necessarily super wealthy, but if they bought recently, they paid top dollar and, you're maybe not going to pay that mortgage and pay for those homes with renting to a bunch of lift operators.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 16:13):

Something I've heard a lot is that short-term rentals—and maybe this isn't as true in mountain towns. You said, people aren't buying up entire neighborhoods worth of worth of homes. But the short-term rentals in other places perhaps change the change the culture of a community, right? You don't know your neighbors, or you're getting loud parties at all times, at night, that you can't really do anything about. Are you seeing any of that in Colorado?

Jason Blevins (16:36):

I mean, yeah, that's part of the whole appeal that we're seeing with these, when they hear from local leaders in town councils saying, you know, “‘My neighbors are coming up to me, and they're saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, my neighbor’s house is now a short-term rental, and they're in hot tubs at three o'clock in the morning. And they're hooting and hollering and the recycle bins are overflowing, and there's bunch cars parked there. And this used to be a house and when I was over there, I would go knock on the door and say, “Hey, neighbor, be a neighbor, quit throwing parties or whatever.”’”

So, you know, that there is that loss of neighborhood feel. And you hear it in every council when the local leaders are talking about, ‘Hey, what can we do? Everybody, all those council people and those county commissioners have a story about a neighbor coming up talking about how short-term rentals are ruining their neighborhood character and the feel of some of these communities. And that's, you know, that is a real impact.

Emma Atkinson (17:37):

So these are the two major negative impacts of short-term rentals: Loss of community feel and loss of affordable housing, both of which can get people real fired up.

But Blevins has an uniquely informed perspective on the affordable housing front.

Jason Blevins (17:53):

You know, Emma, the wealth disparity in these ski towns is really in your face. You know, it's just, it's really in your face, like, it is ridiculous, how much people pay for houses in new ski towns. And, you know, when you're grinding it out in a kitchen or as a ski instructor or something like that, and you're seeing these folks come in with these, buying a house for cash or whatever, and that's more money than you're gonna make in your lifetime—it can be disheartening, right? It can be a heavy thing to witness in your neighborhood, and you feel a tremendous sense of loss and it's easy to blame short-term rentals, when the issue is wealth inequity.

Yeah, short-term rentals are a problem. But if you dig down in that hole, the problem is, you know, just how much these ski towns amplify the wealth disparity in our country, right? Like it's just, it's really in your face out here. And it’s hard to avoid. Especially in Aspen, you just see it all the time, all the time.

I've told this story before, but you open up those local newspapers in those ski towns, and you just had the greatest ski day of your life, and maybe you're off to the restaurant to go work, and you're like, ‘I'm gonna live in Aspen for the rest of my life.’ And you open up that newspaper, and you get to the back of the book. And it looks like there's a frickin’ typo on every price in [there]. ‘Here's a home for $35 million. Oh, there's one for $50 million. Oh, there's a tiny little shack in the middle of, you know, middle of downtown for $7 million. It's a fixer upper.’ And every day you open up that book, and that book tells you, you will never live here. You're not welcome here. You don't belong here.

I think that is the root basis, root foundational concept herein a lot of these sorts of [things]. The ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’—it's just so evident and blatant in our ski towns. And I think it's wearing on people and that wearing is evidenced in these you know, ‘Let's savage short-term rentals and see what that does,’ you know, because it's the lowest-hanging fruit and a really deep embedded, societal, cultural problem we have in this country.

Emma Atkinson (20:34):

So, the problem with short-term rentals, maybe, is just a symptom of larger issues that we’re facing as a culture. We’re dealing with record levels of loneliness. People are craving community, and they can blame Airbnbs and VRBOs for why they don’t know their neighbors.

In 2022, a survey found that more than a third of people who rent their homes do so because they can’t afford to buy one. Housing insecurity, especially since the pandemic, has plagued major cities across the country for years.

It’s easy to say that short-term rentals are the cause of these issues—especially when people are so disgruntled by hidden fees and extra tasks that they have to complete to stay in one. But the larger impact of the short-term rental industry, it seems, is yet to be seen. It’s not a satisfying answer, but it can serve as food for thought when you’re booking your next trip to the beach or craving a getaway in the mountains.

A big thanks to our guests, DU professor Cheri Young and Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins, for sharing their expertise with us on this week’s episode. More information on their work is available in the show notes.

A quick note—my co-host, Matt Meyer, will be moving on from his role with the podcast. He’ll be staying with DU and doing great work with internal communications, keeping our community informed about the most important University news and initiatives.

That means I’ll be your sole host moving forward.

I know all of us, but especially myself, will miss Matt’s sharp news judgment, incredible writing skills and unfailing sense of humor. That man is as dry and witty as they come, and it makes him an absolute joy to work with. Matt, good luck with your next adventure—we’re looking forward to counting you as a listener!

Joy Hamilton is our managing editor, and James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd.

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